Spellcraft Chapter 24: Player Versus Planning

I ran as fast as I could, which apparently wasn’t very fast since I could hear the Horizon bitch catching up to me. Something whooshed through the air behind me and I dove for the ground.

I imagined myself diving for the ground and doing an acrobatic roll that saved my ass while also preventing that ass from getting a sword stuck in it, but the actual result was I slammed against the grimy cobblestones and slid a couple of feet, getting an introduction to how realistic the feeling of slamming into cobblestones was in this game.

I scrambled around to my backside and pulled away from the girl. Meanwhile she did the opposite and advanced on me with her swords out.

“You’re only prolonging this,” she said.

I needed to stall. That’d been close. If her swords hit me she would’ve realized I was still immune to PvP. If she realized I was still immune she’d go back to kill Kristoph’s non-immune ass.

I settled on her tabard and blurted out the first thing that came to mind when I saw it.

“Why are you wearing the Horizon logo?” I asked.

“Oh, does the little baby not know who really runs this game?” the girl asked. “Well you’re about to find out. Dealing with little pricks like you is why I wear this tabard. Proudly.”

I held my hands up as though that might be enough to ward her off. I wanted to seem like I was a cornered lowbie noob, though the term “lowbie” didn’t feel like it was all that accurate in a game where a person’s ability wasn’t determined by an outright level so much as by the skills they’d leveled up.

Either way I figured the lowbie noob was more of a platonic ideal in this situation even if it wasn’t something that could truly exist in this game. So I did what I figured a lowbie noob in my situation would do when the person attacking them had paused to monologue long enough to let me put some distance between us. 

I scrambled to my feet and ran. Again.

The woman who’d been ready to have a little fun at my expense cursed and ran after me, her feet slapping against the pavement as she gave up all pretense of stealth.

Why should she even bother with stealth when she had me so thoroughly outmatched?

I rounded a corner and sprinted towards the edge of town. It was a damn good thing the whole PVP immunity thing was something that had to do with time played rather than location. I’d played some games where I would’ve been toast the moment I left a town safe zone.

I needed to draw her somewhere that would give Kristoph enough time to take care of business on his end. Assuming he could take care of business on his end.

It was entirely possible I was going to all this trouble leading this woman away and Kristoph was still going to have his ass handed to him. That lower skilled chick could’ve been running a deception or something wearing that lower level gear.

Hell, even with that less impressive gear she might be able to kick Kristoph’s ass even if she was just as new to the game as we were.

“How are you doing?” I asked in party chat, breathing heavily. The stitch forming in my side was way too realistic.

“A little busy right now,” Kristoph said, the clang of weapons echoing in the background. “But it looks like this chick is a noob in slightly less than noob clothing.”

“Good to hear,” I said with a grin.

To quote an ancient bit of entertainment: I loved it when a plan came together. Especially when it was something I’d put together on the fly without much hope of it actually working.

“I’m going to get you, you little shit!” my pursuer cried out after me. “And when I get ahold of you I’m going to flay you alive and bring back your skin for Gregor and Torian to make into a new piece of leather armor!”

Great. Not only was she trying to kill me, but she was also an unhinged nutjob.

I figured that was going to create a hell of an ethics debate the first time someone tried to go all creepy serial killer on someone else in this game given the realism. Or the first time someone tried to rape someone or do any of a myriad of things that fucked up people could do in a realistic game like this.

I really didn’t want to be the first subject of someone doing something ethically questionable enough that it created that debate about whether or not torture was something the game would allow. I had to hope my plan would hold together.

“Have to catch me first!” I shouted over my shoulder.

I rounded another corner and dashed down an alley without thinking about what I was doing, and that proved to be a mistake. I quickly found myself at the end of said grimy and disgusting alley where there was literally no escape. I looked up and around to see if there was a way to climb out of the place, but there was nothing obvious.

“I’ve got you now, you little shit,” the woman growled. “Torian is going to be very happy with me.”

I whirled around and eyed the swords this woman was raising at me. She smiled as she brought her swords down on me. I heard a whoosh and felt the air moving ahead of the things as her triumphant expression turned to confusion when her swords didn’t make contact. No, they jerked to the side in a rubbery motion instead of neatly lobbing my head off. As though there was an invisible shield around me.

Which, of course, there totally was. I’d never been so happy to discover that my assumptions about a game’s mechanics were still correct.

I grinned as the girl looked at me with slowly dawning realization.

“Oops,” I said. “Did you think I’d be stupid enough to flag myself for PVP when I don’t have a chance of taking you in a fair fight?”

“But why would you…”

Her eyes went wide. She’d realized, too late, what was going on. Her lips moved but no noise reached me as she talked in her own party chat. Not that it mattered. I could tell from the way her expression darkened that she wasn’t learning anything she cared for.

“You little piece of shit,” she said. “I’m going to get you for that.”

“You keep saying that,” I said. “But I’m not afraid of you and whatever threats you want to toss my way. If your bossman and his minions in leather and robes couldn’t scare me then you’re not doing jack shit.”

I turned my attention to Kristoph. I did look off to the side to make it clear I wasn’t talking to the crazy lady in front of me. I also wondered if there was a setting that allowed my party chat conversation to be broadcast in local chat around me, and a little option glowed at the bottom of my heads up display letting me know the game interface had made it so.

I grinned. Good. I wanted her to hear my conversation with Kristoph.

“You doing okay buddy?”

“Taking care of business,” Kristoph said, his voice echoing out across the dark alley because apparently I’d allowed group chat to broadcast. There was a thunk followed by a splorch, and then another thunk. Then Kristoph came back on the line, breathing hard. “We’ve got one newbie working for the forces of darkness who’s had her head bashed in.”

There was a pause.

“By the way. PVP combat in this game is really disgusting.”

“I can imagine,” I said after imagining some very unpleasant ways Kristoph’s fight could’ve ended even if he was the victor.

I turned back to my would-be attacker. I also noticed movement at the alley entrance. At first I worried it was Horizon Dawn reinforcements, for all that they couldn’t hurt me right now, but then I grinned as I realized those shadows were a little too low to the ground to be human player characters.

“So… Looks like this is done. You want to go pick up the remains of your friend? I can assure you my buddy isn’t going to be there by the time I get there, but you might be able to safe her stuff.”

I really hoped Kristoph picked up on the unspoken order there. He needed to get the fuck out of there.

“Fuck you,” she hissed. “We’re going to follow you and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that… What?”

Oh good. She noticed I’d been looking over her shoulder. Because several goblin guards had appeared to darken the alleyway, no doubt summoned by someone trying to attack a protected noob, and from their predatory grins they looked like they were happy to see they’d been called to deal with someone wearing the Horizon Dawn tabard.

I knew they were all NPCs in a game that was designed to have NPCs that were strikingly realistic, but I could swear they were showing some emotion there. Satisfaction, maybe even some glee.

I’d been hazarding a hell of a guess, but after that attack in the town circle I figured the game must have some sort of tracking system in place that summoned the guards whenever someone made an attack on a player who wasn’t flagged for PVP.

I figured the game didn’t care for that. At least the game didn’t care for it here in town. I’d probably be fucked if I was out in the forest all by my lonesome where there were no guards to summon, but it worked out for me in this case.

“Nice talking to you,” I said, wiggling my fingers at her in a little goodbye wave. “But I don’t think you’re going to do any more tracking in the immediate future.”

“We’re going to find you and make you regret the day you ever crossed us,” she hissed.

“That’s funny,” I said. “Because Horizon pukes keep telling me that and so far it hasn’t come true. And we’re talking far higher up the corporate ladder than some idiot willing to trade their soul for some glowing loot.”

She flipped me the bird, but it was interrupted by the guards moving in around her. They were grinning and none to gentle about pulling her away. 

She didn’t bother to fight them. Obviously she didn’t have the same pull with the guards that the asshole Torian had.

Whatever. I waited for them to cart her off, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic this time around as it’d been in the main circle when the guards went after Gregor, then stepped out of the narrow alley and looked both ways to make sure I didn’t have anyone else hanging around following me.

I didn’t think they would. Whoever ordered these two to follow us, one guess as to who gave that order, probably thought me and Kristoph would be easy targets considering we were new to the game. They probably thought two of their minions would be more than enough to take us out, and by the time they got more people out here to track me I planned on being gone. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had underestimated me and I’d taken advantage of that underestimation.

Still, it never hurt to be careful. Careful was a big part of the reason why I was so good at what I did.

“Where are you now?” I asked in party chat, but not before making sure I’d muted myself in local so no one who might or might not be hanging around would hear me.

“Heading your way,” Kristoph replied.

“Are you being followed?” I asked.

“Pretty sure I’m not being followed. That girl who was chasing you just went by surrounded by a bunch of guards though. She must be really clumsy because she kept falling over and looked really beaten and bruised,” he said.

I smiled. Yeah. The local NPC population didn’t seem happy about being taken over by a bunch of Horizon pukes and they were having their revenge in whatever small way they could. I wasn’t sure what I could do with that, but I was pretty sure I could use it.

I looked at the town in one direction and then turned to the forest not far beyond the town’s borders in the other direction.

“I’m going to go ahead and leave town,” I finally said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to spend more time in this place than we have to. At least not until we get some more skills and a better feel for local politics. Sticking around is inviting them to have more “fun” with us.”

“I agree,” Kristoph said. “We landed in a hell of a place to get started.”

“You’ve got that right,” I said.

Though I got a sneaking suspicion that if there was a guild cosplaying a bunch of Horizon sycophants in this town then we were likely to find the same thing in other towns as well. Horizon was the kind of company to hedge their bets by throwing around enough money that they were betting on everything at once.

Unfortunately I had no way of checking that theory short of hopping on one of those airships and going for a little trip I didn’t have time for right now. Or maybe logging out and checking the official forums which I also totally didn’t have time for.

Besides, there were Horizon wannabes, or maybe Horizon agents, here in this town right now. I figured that made it as good a place as any to fight the pricks. I’d take care of this little part of the game world first, and worry about the rest of the world later.

“Meet me out there in the woods,” I said. “I figure we can find some stuff to bash in and get some experience, at least. Maybe the next time we go up against those assholes we won’t be as easy for them to pick on.”

Though I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t going to matter how many skills we gathered. Those pricks had a head start on us, after all. Sure things would probably level out at the higher levels where abilities tended to even out in any game and gear started to matter more, but that wasn’t going to help us for awhile.

Especially when Horizon Dawn had that custom gear. I didn’t know how Horizon was pumping that custom gear into the game, but it was giving their lackeys a clear advantage over other players and I didn’t like that.

“Got it,” Kristoph said. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Of course I kept quiet about the main reason I was interested in going out to that forest. It didn’t have anything to do with bashing monsters and forest critters to gain some combat skills, though I figured that was a good ruse to get Kristoph out there. He probably would gain some of those skills, even while he was covering my ass.

Because I figured there were going to be lots more reagents waiting out there, and I couldn’t wait to see what there was to gather as we explored and Kristoph ran defense for my flower picking.

I’d even stopped off at a shop while Kristoph was playing cat and mouse with Horizon Dawn. I’d grabbed a pickaxe that was the in-game representation of the mining skill, and a trowel that was supposed to allow me to gather certain herbs that couldn’t just be plucked out of the ground, and a skinning knife whose purpose was asked and answered right there in the name.

I double checked that those items were still safe and sound in my inventory, then headed off for the forest.

Despite everything that’d happened I whistled a happy tune thinking about all the fun I was about to have gathering things while Kristoph did the head bashing. And I probably wouldn’t even have to listen to Kristoph bitching since I’d just saved his life.

Not too much, at least.

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<<Chapter 23Chapter 25>>

Spellcraft Chapter 23: Hunted

“What’s taking you so fucking long?” I asked into party chat.

I looked down at my wrist before I remembered I didn’t have a watch in this world. It was supposed to be a high fantasy setting, after all, and smart watches weren’t exactly high fantasy.

At least not in the form I was used to. I thought about the current time and it appeared in front of me in faintly glowing letters. I’d just have to get used to summoning menus with my mind instead of glancing at my watch for info.

Also? That readout told me it’d been at least ten minutes since Kristoph was supposed to be here.

“Kristoph?” I asked. “You out there man? What’s going on?”

“You’re not the one trying to avoid those assholes,” Kristoph said. “They’ve been tailing me ever since I respawned. It’s like they knew where I was and how to get me.”

“That’s not all that hard to figure out,” I said. “If I was running an operation like that and I had someone I wanted to make miserable I’d make sure my guys were staking out all the respawn locations. From there it’d be easy enough to follow you and make you miserable.”

“You think way too much about this stuff,” Kristoph said. “Like you seriously have a problem.”

“Yeah I have a problem,” I said. “Those assholes at Horizon killed my sister, and if they’re here in this game trying to ruin my good time then you bet your ass I’m going to make them, and anyone who claims to represent them, fucking pay for it.”

Honestly I was having some trouble with this conversation. I didn’t like talking about Diana. I tried not to think about her too much, but every time I thought about vengeance against Horizon I was thinking about her.

And I thought about that vengeance a lot.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kristoph said, then there was a string of curses.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“I think they spotted me,” he said. “Not good. Not fucking good at all!”

I sighed. “This isn’t going well at all.”

“You’re telling me,” Kristoph said. “I’m the one whose ass is hanging in the breeze without any PVP protection. I really fucking wish someone told me about that before I hit that idiot.”

“You and me both,” I said. “If you still had that protection and hadn’t pissed them off then you might be here already and we might be doing something productive!”

The sooner Kristoph got his Player Killed ass out here to the edge of town, the sooner we could get down to the business of figuring out a way to ruin Horizon’s plans, whatever they were, in this game. I had some half formed ideas, but I didn’t know enough about this game world yet or what Horizon was doing operating so blatantly in the game for a plan to truly come together.

“Damn it!” Kristoph spat.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Look up,” Kristoph said.

I looked up, expecting to find one of those airships that buzzed low over Nilbog every half hour or so, but I didn’t see anything.

“I meant look up from your heads up display, idiot,” Kristoph groused. “Not literally look up in the sky.”

I grimaced and turned to face Kristoph’s direction, that was something the party interface showed on the minimap that was always in the top corner of my HUD which was useful, and sure enough there Kristoph was just down the street. 

I didn’t see what the problem was. Then the two assholes who’d obviously been using some sort of stealth ability to trail Kristoph stepped out of the shadows and closed in on him.

Clearly he’d had been close enough to sense them before I could see them. I shivered as I remembered some of the bone chilling sound effects from older MMOs that let you know a stealth character was about to seriously fuck you up.

“I take it this means you didn’t lose them?” I asked.

“I’d hoped I’d lost them,” Kristoph said. “This fucking game should really tell you when there are rules that can accidentally flag you for PVP.”

“And it wouldn’t have mattered because you would’ve gotten so mad that you tried to attack that guy anyway,” I said. “I keep telling you getting mad just lets other people get you. That’s my number one play.”

“Good for you. Now are you going to do something to help me here?” Kristoph asked.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “You’ve got a couple of higher skill stealth dudes who are about to bend you over and have their way with you. I’m not into the idea of making that a foursome.”

“I think they’re chicks, not dudes,” Kristoph said.

“Well then,” I said. “That sounds like it’d be right up your alley.”

“Yeah, when I talk about wanting a threesome this is not what I had in mind,” Kristoph growled.

I chuckled and started towards them despite my grousing. I didn’t have a plan yet, but I was looking at my surroundings as I kept Kristoph talking. Always be moving, even if you had no idea what the hell you were moving towards or what the fuck you were going to do when you got there. That was my motto in life.

“Again I’d like to stress that I could really use an assist here,” Kristoph said. 

“And again I’d like to stress that I have no idea what the fuck you want me to do,” I shot back, taking in the distance between him and the stealthers moving in on him.

“Come on,” Kristoph said. “You’re the one who’s always coming up with the evil plans to screw people over. Come up with something that’s going to screw over these bitches on my ass!”

“Yeah, well I’m not sure about this one,” I said. “If I try to attack then I’m flagged for PVP, and the next thing you know two guys are bending me over too and I’m screwed.”

“I told you they’re chicks,” Kristoph said. “And one of them looks like she’s about our level. Pretty sure she was in that circle earlier.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to die because of mistakes you made,” I said. “Sorry man, but you’re on your own on this one.”

Of course I had no intention of leaving Kristoph on his own for this one, but I also wanted my buddy to sweat just a little before I swooped in for a dramatic rescue. Assuming I could pull off a dramatic rescue.

“So is this one of those times where you’re saying you’re not going to rescue me but you’re totally just saying that because you need me to react like I think no rescue is coming, or do you seriously not have anything this time?” Kristoph asked.

“Hey, what can I say?” I asked. “You got yourself into this situation. Why should you expect me to bail you out of it?”

“Because that’s what friends do?” I said.

I was moving through the shadows the entire time. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do, but I was sure that Kristoph was right. I wasn’t leaving my friend to be ravaged by these motherfuckers.

Even if another ganking was the least Kristoph deserved for starting a fight he couldn’t win.

“Come on man,” Kristoph said. “You have to have something that…”

“Enough talking,” I said.

“I fucking knew it!” he said, accompanied by a fist pump.

“You know you doing stuff like that to tip off the bad guys that we’re doing something is exactly why I don’t tell you when I’m planning something like this,” I said.

“Sorry,” Kristoph muttered. “What am I doing?”

“Duck into that alley ahead and to your right,” I said, looking at a dark alley on the minimap that looked just right for my purposes.

“Are you fucking kidding?” Kristoph asked. “If I go in there it’s only going to give them a good spot where they can do the bending over in private!”

“Yeah, well in a narrow alley like that you’re also going to be able to take them on one at a time,” I said, an idea finally clicking into place out of the half formed notions I got looking at the situation. “You’re sure the one in there is lower skill level?”

“Oh yeah, let me do a quick pause to inspect her stats and let you know,” Kristoph said.

I waited. “Well?”

“I wasn’t fucking serious man!”

“Fine,” I sighed. “If you’re not going to help me then you’re going to listen to me. Get your ass in that alley.”

“Are you planning something?” Kristoph asked, sounding uncertain again. I’d never told him I was helping him, after all. He’d just assumed. “Because if you’re planning something this would be a great time for you to tell me all about it. I don’t want this to be one of those times where your plan working relies on me not knowing what the fuck the plan is.”

“Get used to disappointment,” I said.

I was almost on them now. I pulled out my starter sword I’d never used and held it over my head, but I was very careful not to actually do anything stupid with said sword. I didn’t want to accidentally hit either of these idiots stalking my buddy. 

Now that I was close enough I could see Kristoph was right. They were both ladies. Not that I had any issue with messing with a lady who had it coming.

“Yo, she-bitch,” I said.

They both jumped. They’d been so focused on Kristoph that they hadn’t noticed me walking right towards them them. They both turned to glare at me. 

The one on the left looked a lot more impressive than the other one. Kristoph might not want to take the time to do an inspect, but I did just to be sure of what I was dealing with.

Sure enough the one on the left was decked out in that stupid Horizon Dawn Syndicate gear. The one on the right wasn’t nearly as impressive. She had some stuff with extra stats, but they were pretty basic and all bore the name “Horizon Initiate pants of what the fuck ever” which made it clear who’d been in early access and who was a noob.

“What do you want noob?” the early access chick asked.

She was tight leather from top to bottom with swords at her sides. The way she fit into that tight leather added a few points on the hotness scale. The only thing missing to complete the ninja look was a mask over a pretty face that was knocked down a couple of notches on the hotness scale because she had the sort of look that said she couldn’t wait to stick those daggers in me.

“What the fuck are you doing messing with my friend?” I asked. “You think your little lowbie friend there isn’t woman enough to take him out on her own or something, so you have to make it an unfair fight?”

The better equipped girl’s eyes narrowed. She glanced between me and Kristoph, then made a little jerking motion with her head. The newer player hesitated, looking between me and Kristoph, then shrugged and turned on Kristoph.

The meaning was clear. Maybe the newbie didn’t like the idea of taking someone on one on one, maybe it was her first time, but she was going to do it if that’s what she was ordered to do.

“I know who you are,” the early access chick said. “You’re that little shit from earlier. The one with the mouth? Torian told me all about you. Were you stupid enough to drop your PVP flag little lowbie? Didn’t learn the lesson Gregor taught your friend?”

She said that last bit in a singsong voice. I got the feeling this girl was the worst kind of MMO PVPer. The kind of asshole who took pleasure from ruining other players’ good time. Particularly lower level players who couldn’t fight back. The kind of ganker who never went to an actual PVP arena where they would have to rely on some level of twitch skill instead of an overwhelming skill point and gear advantage.

Not the kind of person I appreciated, but exactly the kind of person I enjoyed taking out when I got the opportunity. There was nothing more satisfying than ganking a ganker.

“I had to flag myself for PVP if I’m going to save my friend, right?” I asked, licking my lips and trying my best to look very nervous about the fact that this girl was advancing on me. I was going for the sort of look I imagined someone might get after dropping their PVP protection and realizing that might not be the best of ideas.

“Yes,” she whispered, her voice almost as quiet as the whisper of her scabbards as she drew her swords.

Glowing red runes ran up and down their length, and when I did an inspect the swords had the Horizon Dawn Syndicate name stamped all over them, but they might as well be called Noob Cleaver considering what she was about to do with them. 

“Yes I’d say you would have to do something silly like dropping your protection if you want to save your friend,” she said, confirming that it was something a person could voluntarily do by means other than attacking another player. I’d worried I might be tipping my hand by claiming to do something that wasn’t even possible.

She held a sword out to point at me as she held the other one up and at the ready. “Want me to introduce you to PVP in Lotus little noobling?”

I had no intention of letting on that what I’d said about my current PVP status and what was going on with my actual PVP status were two very different things. A ganker wouldn’t be able to conceive of a situation where I could save my friend without fighting it out unfair and square with the game’s PVP mechanics.

I wasn’t an idiot, but if she was enough of an idiot that she’d take an enemy at his word then I wasn’t going to do anything to disabuse her of that notion.

I did have to admit that her sword looked impressive. Those red runes glowed and crackled with magical kickassery, and I wondered if there was a way to craft items with magical bonuses like that in the game.

I could worry about that later though. Right now I was more concerned with information. Well, information and getting this bitch away from Kristoph so he had a fighting chance against that lower level hunter.

Which meant getting the one in front of me away from him without letting on that I was still totally protected from her attacks. Until the opportune moment.

So I turned and ran.

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<<Chapter 22Chapter 24>>

Spellcraft Chapter 22: Influence

“I’m going to gut you, you smart mouthed little fucker,” Gregor said. “Seriously. You fucking noobs better have some more respect for your betters than what I’m getting. I should gut every one of you for coming into our town and ruining the place!”

I glanced around to see how the crowd was reacting. Pulling something like this was as much about the audience watching as it was about provoking an asshole into doing something stupid.

The only problem was now that there was no more bloodshed the players standing around seemed less interested. As though they knew there wasn’t a chance a lowbie was going to get gutted by a higher skilled player like Gregor. Because of course they would all know about the PVP immunity that protected new players.

At least I hoped I was right about that. Otherwise I was about to discover exactly what kind of pain simulation the wizards at Lotus had coded into this game.

“Your town?” I asked.

“Yes, our fucking town,” Gregor said, again feinting with those daggers but not coming quite close enough to make contact.

I thought fast. A plan was forming, but it all depended on whether or not there was a penalty for players who hit new players who had PVP immunity. Was he avoiding hitting me because he couldn’t hit me, or was he avoiding hitting me because the game was going to come down on him with righteous NPC guard fury if he hit a protected lowbie?

If he could hit me but was trying not to then I figured I had about a mile of wiggle room and loopholes I could walk right through if I could manipulate the situation just right and piss him off to the point he did something ill advised.

After all, manipulating the situation in video games to work in my favor was what I did best.

“Please,” I said with an eye roll. “The angry neckbeard is upset because he got insulted by the noob. Well why don’t you do something about it instead of dancing around talking about doing something about it?”

“You shut the fuck up!” Gregor said, stepping forward.

I stepped back. I wanted it to look like I was genuinely afraid of this unhinged asshole.

To be honest I was just a touch afraid. Most of my time messing with games lately had been messing with AI. I hadn’t done any griefing with a good old fashioned human player in a long time, that Horizon GM notwithstanding, and I was a little rusty when it came to interacting with someone who wasn’t a pile of preprogrammed responses.

Actual humans were always a wild card when pulling a job like this because they could do stupid things I didn’t expect.

“Or what?” I said, making a disgusted noise in the back of my throat. “You’re going to dance me to death? If you’re going to do something then do it, ya limp dicked wimp.”

“I swear to God if you say one more thing…” Gregor growled.

Time to twist the knife. I needed to make this guy mad enough that the few brain cells he did have stopped rubbing together long enough for him to do something monumentally stupid.

“So are you guys getting paid off by Horizon to wear that logo? Like are you the world’s lamest corporate esports guys, or do you just bend over and let them give it to you up the ass because you like it?”

“That’s it you fucker!” Gregor screeched.

“Hey man,” Torian finally said, stepping between Gregor and me before the leather-clad prick could do anything he might regret. “Maybe you want to tone it down just a little? You’re drawing the wrong kind of attention.”

He glanced around. I did the same. It looked like the crowd that’d been dispersing had decided to stick around after all once Gregor started shouting. Heck, if anything the crowd was even bigger now than it’d been when Kristoph was getting gutted.

He’d hate that I was drawing more of a crowd with my mouth than he had with my gruesome death. I wondered if he was watching now from the safety of a death animation since he hadn’t started decomposing which I assumed meant he hadn’t released.

I fought the urge to smile. There were a lot of people wearing this guild’s tabard crowding in, but there were also plenty of people who were obviously new to the game. Not to mention some players who looked like they’d been in the game for awhile and weren’t happy about this Horizon Dawn guild stepping in and calling the shots.

“I am not going to tone it down,” Gregor said, his voice low and cold. Torian’s eyes went wide. I got the feeling he wasn’t used to his minions disobeying orders.

I figured if I was getting this guy to go against his guild leader, or whatever the fuck this Torian guy was, then I was close to my goal.

Gregor went on, oblivious to the peril both around him in the form of pissed off players and beside him in the form of a very pissed off guild leader.

“I’m going to teach this fucker what it means to come into our territory and talk shit about our fucking guild. We own this town, and I’m not going to deal with another one of these noob pricks doubting that!”

He gestured with his daggers towards several buildings featuring copies of the guild tabard they proudly wore. Though I noted there were far more buildings that flew a banner of a goblin placing its finger on a set of scales that had gold on the other end. As though Horizon had bought a few buildings, or maybe just tossed their logo up on a few buildings, but there was still some higher in-game authority that controlled things ‘round these here parts.

I filed that one away. I wasn’t sure if or how I could use it, but I’d certainly try if it helped me piss off these pricks.

“But…”

Whatever Torian had been about to say was lost as Gregor finally got pissed off enough to forget himself. He tried to thrust one of his daggers right into my gut, the same way he did Kristoph.

Panic seized me as that dagger slid towards my gut. Sure I could know on one level that the game was supposed to protect me from that sort of thing, that as long as I wasn’t an idiot making the first move like Kristoph I’d be fine, but it was one thing to know in an academic sense that I should be okay and another thing entirely to watch someone thrusting a very real looking dagger at my stomach.

Visions of what had happened to Kristoph danced through my head. I didn’t want to wind up a twitching corpse on the ground bleeding out and impotently trying to reach for a weapon that wasn’t going to do me a damn bit of good!

“Horizon Dawn!” Gregor screamed as the dagger rammed home.

At least it would’ve rammed home if it weren’t for game mechanics stepping in and saving my ass. It would’ve been impossible for me to dodge that hit no matter my skill level, see all that previous stuff about an idiot letting someone get too close with a weapon, but the dagger hit an invisible barrier and slid off.

Phew.

“Damn it Gregor,” Kravos said, his hand over his face as he shook it.

Red flashed around Gregor. A red flash that looked very similar to the same red flash that’d surrounded Kristoph just before he lost his PVP shielding and got himself killed.

“You fucking idiot,” Torian said. “You stupid fucking idiot!”

“Halt, criminal scum!” someone shouted from across the circle.

I grinned. I mean it’s not like it was a huge surprise that the devs at one of the biggest AAA game companies in the world had played Oblivion, aka the better game that came before the one with all the dragons,and put that ancient joke in their own game, but it was still funny hearing it.

The entire circle had gone silent. Like we’re talking not just the people in our immediate vicinity. It was silent enough that I could hear the distinct sound of armor clanking as the town guards appeared, goblins all and armed to the teeth.

Also? Those goblin guards looked pissed. Like they were annoyed when they got there, and then their looks got downright ugly when they saw the Horizon Dawn guild tabards.

Oh yeah. It was on! Maybe these assholes were keeping the goblins down somehow, but it looked like that didn’t extend to the goblin guards who were stepping in to clean up the mess Gregor just made.

“Um, so admittedly I’m just a simple noob who doesn’t know all that much about this game,” I said.

Guards circled us with a silent swish as they pulled swords out. Small swords, to be sure. Goblin sized swords. Swords that looked more like giant kitchen knives for all that they were shaped like swords.

Still, they looked plenty sharp and they glowed with a faint green that told me there were probably some seriously badass enchants attached to those weapons that would ruin the day of whoever they cut.

I wished I could do something like that. Crafting was always more fun when you could add magic that gave an unfair advantage to the things you were crafting.

“…but I think you just fucked up,” I finished.

Torian hit me with a glare that could’ve killed. His hands tensed on his sword and I wondered if he was going to try it, but then the guards moved in on Gregor even though they barely came up to his waist and gave ol’ Torian a reminder of what happened to idiots who attacked the noobs. 

The goblins raised their swords menacingly, and another guard appeared bearing an insignia that said he had some sort of higher authority in this town.

“You have been found guilty of the crime of attempted murder against the vulnerable and weak,” the ranked goblin said, reciting the lines with a boredom that said he’d gone through this thousands of times before.

Though he couldn’t have possibly gone through this thousands of times before. Not when the game was still shiny and new. He didn’t know that though. His programming told him he’d done this thousands of times before and so that’s how he sounded.

“You will accompany us to the jail where you will await your trial, unless of course you are able to pay off your fine and…”

I rolled my eyes. Of course this game would pay lip service to putting someone like this asshole on trial, and of course the actual mechanic would come down to whether or not a player had the money to buy a get out of jail free card. Typical, but at least this asshole might be inconvenienced until he could come up with the cash.

“I don’t think so,” Gregor said.

“Excuse me?” the guard said, sounding so genuinely surprised that I had to remind myself that the goblin was a string of ones and zeroes and not a real thinking creature.

I didn’t like this. The assholes in Horizon Dawn clearly thought they had some kind of pull. Gregor didn’t sound like someone who was worried about getting carted off to jail or paying a fine.

“I’m not paying anything,” Gregor said.

The goblin captain’s hand went to his own sword at his side. He hadn’t pulled it out yet, but he looked like he was seriously considering it. He also really looked at the humans standing before him for the first time, and his eyes narrowed to a scowl as he looked at the Horizon Dawn tabard.

“In that case it’s off to the jail with you,” he said. “Unless you want to resist.”

The goblin sounded like he relished the idea of someone from Horizon Dawn trying to resist.

“Get your eyes checked goblin,” Gregor said.

The goblin cocked his head to the side. “Why would I have my eyes looked at? Is there something wrong with them?”

Gregor sighed. Clearly the idea of eye exams was a foreign concept to a goblin living in a game world. I snickered, and that was good for another glare from these assholes.

“I’m with Horizon Dawn,” Gregor said. “If you’d get your guards off of me long enough to take a look at my uniform you’d see that.”

The guard frowned.

“I’m aware of who you are, and I don’t give a damn,” the captain said, though he sounded more uncertain now. “If you would…”

“He’ll do nothing of the sort,” Torian said, stepping forward.

The guard seemed to see Torian for the first time. Apparently he wasn’t a very attentive NPC, or perhaps it was simply that the guards were programmed to focus on whoever had caused trouble in the first place so he’d completely missed Torian standing there.

Torian stared the goblin guard down with clear disdain, then made a little motion with his fingers. 

Gregor pulled out a dagger and held it under the ranking guard’s chin. Which got a lot less of a reaction from the goblin than I expected. In most games threatening a guard was a good way to bring down the hurt, but apparently these assholes had enough influence or intimidation factor with the local constabulary that they didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing.

“I could order you killed right here in the middle of this circle and nobody would say anything,” Torian said. “Even your other guards will name a price. You know this.”

The goblin captain paused and thought that over for a long moment. I wondered if he was going to pull out his sword and order the guards to attack. I’d been in enough games where I’d gotten a free beatdown from guards meant to protect other players that I figured it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for these asshats.

Unfortunately it was an unpleasant experience that never came.

“Of course,” the goblin said with a resigned sigh, giving them a tired little wave to move along. “You are free to go. Please refrain from attempting to attack protected players in the future.”

I stared with my mouth open. “What the fuck?”

The guard captain turned to me. Maybe my little outburst finally drew his attention. “I would also advise you not to get in fights with your betters. Now move along.”

Torian held two fingers up to his eyes then pointed them at me.

“Let that be a reminder of who you’re dealing with noob,” he said. “I’ve got my eyes on you now, and you don’t want me to have my eyes on you. That means Horizon Dawn has their eyes on you. Got it?”

I rolled my eyes. I knew I was supposed to be intimidated by this song and dance, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

“Pardon me if I’m not shaking in my noob boots,” I said. “I mean the idea of you staring at my ass all the time is a little terrifying, but that’s it. Now fuck off. I’ve got work to do.”

Torian’s eyes narrowed, but he also eyed the guards and apparently decided now wasn’t the time to cause more trouble. Maybe there was a limit to what the guards were willing to put up with.

Whatever the reason, Torian shouldered past me and motioned for his minions in those ridiculous tabards to follow. I stood there, dumbfounded, staring after them. Sure I’d had a pretty good idea they wouldn’t be able to hurt me, but I was still surprised it’d all worked and I was still alive.

“What the hell are a bunch of assholes wearing the Horizon logo doing in Lotus?” I muttered.

Something was very wrong in this game.

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<<Chapter 21Chapter 23>>

Spellcraft Chapter 21: Involuntary PvP

Gregor gave his daggers another little spin as he grinned at me. He seemed to be a fan of that animation.

I figured the dagger was supposed to twirl in his fingers before disappearing up his sleeve. This was a game, though, and apparently someone in the art department had been too lazy to finish the animation. That or they hadn’t had time before the game went live. 

Either way, it was one of those weird immersion breaking moments where one moment the dagger was there and the next it disappeared rather than disappearing up Gregor’s sleeves.

“Looks like we have ourselves some new scrubs here,” a new guy said, stepping between Gregor and Kravos and shouldering them aside.

The fact that the asshole didn’t get a nasty look from either Gregor or Kravos had me on guard. The dude wore shiny plate of the variety that looked cool but would be utterly impractical in the real world what with all the fancy ornamentation and little fiddly bits hanging off of it that would only serve to get him caught on some enemy’s weapon in any sort of real combat.

Which was good for wondering whether or not all those fiddly bits and ornamentation actually got in the way in the real world considering they’d been included in a game based on realism like Lotus, or if the devs let gamers have their fancy armor without all the pain in the ass problems that would stem from that fancy armor if it was being used in the real world.

If ever there was a group that would bitch because they couldn’t have fancy ostentatious armor in a game that hewed more towards a realistic depiction of things it was gamers. No doubt Lotus was trying to avoid a PR flame war with that little bit of accommodation.

I got the unpleasant feeling we might be getting a firsthand demonstration of just how effective that plate was before all was said and done what with the way the dude was staring at us. It was not a pleasant stare. It was more the kind of stare I might’ve expected from someone who just stepped in some of the lizard shit lying around creating some of the lovely ambient smells that’d prompted me to turn smells way the fuck down.

“Just what we need. More of these lowbies coming into our town and ruining the good thing we had going for ourselves here,” he continued.

My eyes narrowed. Great. Some rich asshole with an overinflated sense of self-importance who didn’t like the common rabble interrupting his precious game experience.

“Hey, you guys don’t have to be such assholes,” Kristoph said. “It’s bad enough that these two were such giant dicks in the forest.”

The one in the plate mail, he had dark hair and blue eyes and I figured he probably would’ve been good-looking enough if you were into the dudes, laughed. 

“What’s he talking about, meeting in the forest?” plate dude asked.

Suddenly Gregor and Kravos looked like they’d rather be anywhere but standing there in front of me and Kristoph. All the fight had gone out of them with just a few words from this asshole.

I wished I could’ve done that with these pricks in the forest earlier.

“It was nothing,” Gregor said.

“Yeah, not a big deal. We just ran into these two,” Kravos said, glaring at me and Kristoph and allowing a flame to dance across his fingers. He seemed to be just as fond of that little animation as Gregor was of the dagger animation, though the flame winking out of existence wasn’t nearly as distracting as a dagger winking out of existence since you expected that sort of thing with magic spells.

Looking between them I got the feeling these guys didn’t want the guy in the plate to know what’d happened out there in the forest. So I figured that was exactly what I was going to blurt out to make things interesting. If these fuckers wanted something then I was going to make it my mission in life to make sure they got the exact opposite.

“Like hell nothing happened out there,” I said. “You guys were chasing that poor goblin and then you got chased off by a girl.”

“The goblin got away?” plate dude said. “That’s interesting considering you told me it was taken care of.”

“It was taken care of,” Gregor muttered, looking away from plate dude.

“I don’t consider a goblin escaping to be taking care of the situation. And what’s this about a girl?” He arched an eyebrow as he turned to Gregor, and then to Kravos. “Neither of you mentioned a girl in your report.”

Kravos moved his hands to his nether regions. I figured he was remembering exactly what that girl had done to him out there. It made me wince to think about it, and I’d just witnessed it. I couldn’t imagine the kind of bad memories Kravos was reliving as he thought about that unfortunate shot to the nuts.

The one in plate sighed. “I suppose it was Keia causing trouble for us again?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it was Torian,” Gregor said.

“You’re Torian?” I asked.

The guy in plate, Torian, turned back to me. His eyebrow rising was the only indication he wasn’t pleased about me interrupting their conversation, but I didn’t give too many fucks what this guy thought about anything I did.

He was acting like the leader of these assholes. If he was king asshole of a bunch of pricks walking around wearing the Horizon logo then he was no one I wanted to get buddy buddy with in the first place.

“Do you always talk to your betters like that, noob?” Torian asked.

“That girl had a message for you,” I said. “I’m guessing your boys here didn’t pass it on if they’re lying to you about everything else?”

The eyebrow moved higher. Meanwhile behind him Gregor and Kravos were alternating between staring at Torian like they genuinely feared him and glaring at me with the kind of look that would kill if there were eye based attacks in this game.

Hell, there might be magic attacks that sent lightning bolts shooting out of someone’s eyes in this game, but they obviously didn’t have them since I was still standing here alive and well despite those glares. Glares that meant I was doing something right if I was pissing them off so much.

“Really? A message? That is interesting,” he said, his eyes darting to his companions.

It was hilarious watching them go from glaring daggers at me to looking appropriately cowed and apologetic as this Torian prick turned to them.

“You need to shut the fuck up noob,” Gregor said.

“Fuck you,” Kristoph said. “No one talks to my friends like that!”

Gregor’s dagger was out again, and this time he waved it in front of Kristoph’s nose. Kristoph went cross eyed and pulled out his hammer, operating on autopilot more tan anything.

There was something off about this. Something that had my scalp tingling. If Gregor wanted to kill Kristoph then why didn’t he do it? Why didn’t he ram that dagger home instead of waving it in front of Kristoph trying to provoke him?

For that matter why hadn’t they killed us in the forest when they had the chance? Why hadn’t they hunted us down after that Keia girl was gone?

It all came together just a second too late. I held my hand up to try and stop Kristoph, I cried out, but he’d already slammed his hammer down on the guy’s hand.

Gregor stared in astonishment for a moment, and then started screaming in pain. Which would’ve been pretty damn funny if Torian didn’t immediately pull out a massive sword.

Another couple of guys and a girl in the same tabard came running up. The dudes were dressed to the nines in some pretty ornate equipment that was lousy with the Horizon Dawn Syndicate label when I did a quick inspect, but the girl looked like she was in mostly new clothing the same as me and Kristoph. The dudes had obviously been in the game as part of the whole early access thing, but the chick looked like just as much of a Lotus noob as me and Kristoph.

Which meant these pricks were recruiting, and they were finding people willing to listen to their bullshit.

I wondered if Kristoph had actually done any damage with that hit, and a health bar obligingly appeared above Gregor’s head that showed he’d lost a few percentage points of health. It wasn’t much, but it was a hit.

That surprised me, for all that I should’ve expected something like this to be possible. Kristoph had managed to actually do some damage to the leather-clad assfuck. He was able to get that hit off despite the fact that he was a much lower skill level than Gregor. Apparently the people who designed Lotus took the whole “just like the real world” thing very seriously.

In any other massive online game a low-level person trying to attack a high-level person would’ve been approximated by some fancy math that amounted to no hit landing. It would’ve been accompanied by a nice little whooshing noise to show the lowbie the true depths of their noobish failure.

Lotus was different, though. The designers had put together a game backed by calculations so advanced, so true to what would happen in a real world situation, that it was possible for an inexperienced idiot with a starter two-handed warhammer to land a hit on an experienced player with far higher skills.

Which made sense. In the real world any seasoned warrior who was dumbass enough to close within point blank range of an idiot with a weapon was opening themselves to a world of potential hurt no matter how skilled they were with their own weapons.

Worry wormed through me as a strange red glow surrounded Kristoph. As though something about his avatar had changed. Kristoph’s face screwed up in confusion as his eyes darted back and forth. Like he was reading a notification that’d appeared in his personal heads up display.

“What does ‘Starter PVP Shields Lowered’ mean?” Kristoph asked. “This isn’t a fucking Star Trek game.”

“It means this, you noob asshat,” Gregor said, his voice the equivalent of what I imagined an overweight neckbeard living in his parents’ basement would consider menacing.

I guess Gregor wasn’t as damaged as he’d been acting, or maybe he’d recovered fast, because he stabbed Kristoph in the gut with one of the daggers he’d been showing off. Then with a quick flourish he moved his hand up and lodged the other dagger in Kristoph’s throat. From there things got very messy very quickly.

I was horrified, but I had to give the game devs respect where respect was due. They’d managed to make the whole death thing seem very realistic. Like realistic to the point that I felt like bending over and losing my lunch as I watched a very realistic approximation of my best friend collapsing to the ground and bleeding out.

It’d been equal parts disgusting and disturbing watching Kravos getting that bloody shot to the nuts, but that was nothing compared to watching my friend bleeding out in the middle of the town circle. Blood oozed from his midsection where he’d been gutted, which would’ve been bad enough, but the blood spurting from his neck to mix with the otherwise clear water in the fountain was even worse.

A couple of NPC goblins who’d been walking up to the fountain to gather some water made disgusted noises and pulled away. Though I noted that they didn’t seem all that horrified. Merely inconvenienced. Like this sort of thing happened all the time.

“You asshole!” I shouted.

I pulled out my starter sword more on instinct than anything. What can I say? I was pissed off. These pricks walking around in Horizon gear had just killed my best friend. Kristoph was gurgling on the ground and his body twitched as he kicked and tried to do something, anything, to get a small measure of revenge on the prick who offed him.

I glared at Gregor, but the rational part of my brain managed to take over from the more revenge minded parts of my mind in time to stop me from doing something stupid. The asshole, for his part, turned to me and looked me up and down with a dismissive sneer.

“Go ahead noob,” he said. “Make my fucking day.”

He talked a big game, but he didn’t attack. No, he stood there with his daggers out making little feinting motions towards me, but none of them landed. Just like he’d threatened us in the forest without actually following through on those threats. Just like he’d waved his dagger under Kristoph’s nose without actually landing a hit until Kristoph attacked.

Because he couldn’t attack Kristoph unless Kristoph hit first. We were in a realistic game world, but already I’d seen several times over that it was a realistic game world that made concessions to the fact that it was a game.

Kristoph’s confused words just before he was gutted said it all. “Starter PVP Shields Lowered.” Which meant he’d had some sort of immunity to PVP before he made the mistake of hitting that guy with his hammer.

I hadn’t hit anyone to open myself up to combat. Which meant I still had whatever protection the devs gave lowbies who were new to the game. I wasn’t sure why that Keia chick wouldn’t tell us about something that important, but then again I should’ve known better than to expect advice from a disembodied voice in the forest who probably would’ve killed us if she could anyway.

I fought back a smile. I didn’t want to look like I was happy about these assholes killing Kristoph, but I also knew I could have some fun with this.

Maybe it was a mistake to piss off a player who was obviously higher skilled than me and could make things difficult for me whenever my own PVP immunity wore off, but at the same time I was starting to feel that familiar tingle running up the back of my scalp.

This was a system I could exploit, and I’d never met an exploitable game system I couldn’t resist exploiting.

Besides. If these motherfuckers were glorifying Horizon then I was going to do something about them. I wasn’t sure what the fuck I was going to do about them, but in the immediate future I saw myself pissing them off big time. It wouldn’t be as satisfying as killing the motherfuckers, but it would have to do.

“That’s a nice tabard you have there,” I said.

“What the fuck do you care about my tabard?” Gregor asked.

“Oh I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I was wondering what it tasted like when you got down on your knees and sucked Horizon’s corporate cock every night.”

A couple of players who’d gathered to see the show snickered. They quickly shut the fuck up when Gregor shot them dirty looks, but I’d scored a point with that jab. I noticed a few of the gigglers were even in Horizon Dawn tabards.

“You’d better shut the fuck up if you know what’s good for you,” Gregor said.

The dude’s daggers flashed, but again they didn’t make contact with yours truly. Meanwhile the asshole leader, Torian, crossed his arms and rolled his eyes like he’d seen something like this happen before and was willing to tolerate it even if he didn’t particularly care for it.

“I swear if you cross us again you little asshole I’m going to…”

Time to call their bluff.

“You’re going to what?” I asked.

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<<Chapter 20Chapter 22>>

Spellcraft Chapter 20: Trouble Brewing

We kept walking until we hit a main thoroughfare. It was a wider road, at least, though it looked like we were still in the medieval fantasy equivalent of housing. 

“I wonder if this is player housing or NPC stuff,” I said.

“No clue,” Kristoph said. “We could break into a couple of places and see what the guards have to say about it.”

I found myself actually considering it even though it was a terrible idea. The sun was overhead, after all, and if my experience in other video games had taught me anything it was that breaking into houses in broad daylight wasn’t a great idea.

Even if it would provide me with a lot of information about the game. I figured it was also a good way to gather a lot of information about just how pointy some of the guard’s weapons were, and how sensitive the pain tolerances were with that dial turned down.

“I have a feeling we’re playing with fire if we do something like that in the middle of the day,” I said.

“Maybe, but maybe not,” Kristoph said, his finger idly running up and down the length of his starter hammer. Like he was calculating how much force he’d have to apply to one of those flimsy doors to really fuck them up.

“You can’t seriously be considering this,” I said.

“I mean maybe?” he said. “This game is supposed to be a playground for us. So why not have some fun and push at the edges? I thought that’s the kind of shit you liked doing?”

“Yeah, but I also don’t like the idea of being turned into a pincushion,” I said. “If we’re gonna do something like that we should at least wait for night.”

Not that I thought it was a great idea even after dark. I wanted to get a feel for this town before we went breaking in-game laws. Not to mention there was still that nagging voice telling me that treating the very realistic NPCs like they were props in an amusement park was somehow wrong considering how lifelike they were.

That nagging voice was going to push me into doing something very stupid if it kept up.

“Come on,” I said, eager to get a move on before Kristoph followed through on the high impact lock picking method he was no doubt thinking of pioneering. “You were never big on stealth characters to begin with. Even if you manage to get in you’re going to draw the attention of every guard between hear and the other edge of town. Especially next to a main road like this.”

“You’re right,” Kristoph said. “So what are we going to do?”

“Check out the town,” I said. “See what there is to see. Not break anything or break into anything until we have a better idea of what the consequences are for doing something like that.”

“And hope we don’t run into those assholes again,” Kristoph muttered. “They’re out there somewhere.”

I worried about that, but it couldn’t bother me too much as I stared at our impressive surroundings. I was still in that stage a lot of people went through when they’re looking at an impressive new videogame on impressive new hardware for the first time. The stage where just about any shovelware would sell as long as it was a suitable showcase for the fancy new hardware’s capabilities.

Basically what Horizon had been doing with their Lotus modules for the past year or so since the hardware launched without a first party AAA title to draw people in. Though to be fair the Lotus game was anything but shovelware now that it was out, and it was way more than a pretty hardware demonstration.

Looking around also saddened me just a little, because as I looked at the digital world around me I knew this would be the last time I ever looked at a new game being generated by a new piece of hardware with that sense of awe and astonishment. 

They’d made this look so close to reality that there was no way I was ever going to find something that rivaled this experience. Humanity had finally peaked in terms of the game graphics arms race.

I stepped onto the main thoroughfare and followed the noise. I figured where there was noise there’d be players, and as we walked on more and more players gathered around us.

Yeah, there was definitely something interesting up ahead.

Occasionally an airship would buzz overhead and drown out the noise, but it wasn’t all that difficult to follow my ears even with those things floating overhead making an odd hum that wasn’t quite the same as an old prop airplane, but similar enough that it was evocative of old images from the first couple of world wars.

Some sound design person probably took the sound of an old prop plane and warped it just enough in whatever software they were using that it sounded similar without being a straight copy and paste.

“Boy I’d like to have on of those babies,” Kristoph said, looking at the latest one flying overhead.

We passed by a small park with what looked like the remains of a statue in the center. I couldn’t make out what the statue had been, but clearly someone had been busy vandalizing the local statuary.

Not that I gave that much thought. No, the park and the break in the buildings it provided meant I could see a massive tower off in the distance that was surrounded by a couple of those airships. They seemed to be arriving and leaving on a pretty regular schedule, and I figured that meant they were exactly what they seemed. Transport to other parts of the game world.

It was nice to know that we could get the hell out of this place if it turned out those assholes were more than we could handle. Not that I was too worried.

“I wouldn’t mind having one of those either,” I said. “Can you imagine hunting someone down on one of thoe babies?”

“I can,” Kristoph said, in a tone that said he was imagining it as he said it. “But it’s not like we’re gonna be able to do anything like that.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“This game is a fantasy setting,” he said. “I haven’t seen any steampunk shit yet, and those things definitely aren’t running on engines. They’re not gonna give players flying ships like that.”

“I don’t know,” I said, staring longingly at the tower. This game seemed to give players a lot of leeway to play how they wanted. Sure I didn’t know much about the crafting system yet, but what I’d seen so far was encouraging.

Maybe I would be able to tool around on my own badass airship someday, even if that day wasn’t today.

“Let’s go towards the noise,” I said, tearing my eyes away from the airship tower.

“Good idea,” Kristoph muttered. “Let’s get closer to a crowd that probably has some of those Horizon assholes in it. Maybe they even took screenshots or videos of us so everyone in their guild knows who they’re supposed to kill.”

I frowned. I hadn’t thought of that, but considering how easy it was for me to take a video of Kristoph he had a point. As always when Kristoph had a point, I hated that he had that point.

“Whatever,” I growled. “We can’t live our in-game lives in fear of those pricks.”

It didn’t take long to find the source of that noise, and it was enough to take my breath away all over again, for all that I’d been having a lot of breathtaking moments lately. Apparently Kristoph agreed judging by the way he stared with his mouth hanging open.

“You’re gonna catch flies with that thing,” I said.

“Damn,” Kristoph breathed.

“Damn is right,” I said.

We stood on the edge of a wide circle. Like we’re talking most video games ran condensed worlds when it came to towns and housing and shops, to save on processing power and on travel time for players who weren’t interested in traversing a real world in realtime, but that wasn’t the case here. This place was just as massive as it would’ve been if it were built up in the real world over years.

Shops ran all around the outer edge of the circle, and a fountain sat in the middle spraying clear water into the sunlight and creating a small mist and small rainbows. The thing was totally epic. It depicted an armored human warrior holding a sword overhead that was about to bring the hurt down on a goblin.

Though this goblin looked very different from the goblin we’d seen in the forest earlier. It also looked very different from the goblins going about their business in the town circle. The one in the stone carving looked far more threatening than any goblin in that circle, for instance. Its teeth were bared in a nasty snarl, and it had clawed hands gripping a barbed sword that looked like it could do some damage.

Assuming it was in a fight against anything other than a human in plate armor that’d clearly gotten it down on the ground and was ready to bring the hurt, that is.

Also? There was something very off about the whole thing. Like the stone for the statue wasn’t the same color as the rest of the fountain.

Weird. Had someone been fucking with the stonework around here?

“Now that’s interesting,” I said.

“What? Looks like a big statue,” Kristoph said. “They have them all over the place in games like this. Art department loves that shit because they can do the old control c control v shuffle to sprinkle’em around the place.”

“Yeah, but that goblin doesn’t look anything like the live ones,” I said. “Unless these things have bigger scarier siblings that live out in the forest.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time there’s a scarier monster version of an NPC race lurking around the edges of a game,” Kristoph said.

“Maybe,” I said. “But…”

I looked around to make sure no one was listening in on us. It looked like the coast was clear. Still. I leaned in closer to Kristoph and whispered.

“The goblin we met out in the forest didn’t look like that either, and he said he was going to other goblins,” I said.

“Who might be big and terrifying,” Kristoph said.

“I’m just saying something’s really wrong here,” I said. “And I don’t think there are goblins that look like that in this game.”

“So what?” Kristoph said. “Humans conquer goblins and make a statue that makes the thing they conquered look scarier than it actually was. Nothing new there.”

“Maybe,” I said, still thinking there was something weird about that statue.

The circle was filled with a healthy hustle and bustle from players and NPCs alike. We joined the throng. I was walking along, minding my own business and gawking, when something slammed into me.

Before I knew it I was eating dirt. Which wasn’t pleasant considering the attention to detail in Lotus had apparently extended to a group of unfortunates who were tasked with figuring out how to add taste to the game.

Including the taste of a good old fashioned dirt pie. Yuck.

I picked myself up. My hands were covered in grime. In the real world that would’ve bothered me considering some of the microscopic crap I knew was lurking in the grime on our level, but for some reason being covered in muck and grime in a game world didn’t bother me nearly as much as here considering I knew none of it was real. It’s not like I was going to get an infection from a game world.

I looked up at the source of my sudden tumble. It was a familiar asshole wearing leather armor covered by a tabard that had a sword and that stylized H on the front that was exactly the same as the H that loaded at the beginning of fantasy themed Horizon games. 

That immediately had me seeing red, which probably wasn’t good considering I was going up against a couple of higher-skilled characters. Higher-skilled characters who apparently hadn’t realized who they’d bumped into yet.

I knew it was only a matter of moments though. No one could be that oblivious.

“Watch where the hell you’re going noob,” Gregor spat. He pulled out a dagger and it twirled through his fingers before disappearing.

Then his eyes finally lit on the person he’d knocked over, and recognition dawned. His eyes narrowed and the dagger was back out in a flash, though for a wonder he didn’t try to use the dagger despite looking like he’d love nothing more than to bury it in me and cause some pain.

I swallowed. I’d just gotten a demonstration of how realistic the pain was in this game with that fall, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to feeling it again with something nastier than a fall.

The situation was ridiculous. This town seemed pretty big. What were the odds we’d run into Gregor and Kravos again? As I looked them up and down and saw how they were trying to look intimidating I couldn’t help myself. I started to laugh. From the way they frowned that clearly wasn’t the reaction these assholes had been hoping for when they pulled the whole video game badass routine.

I knew I probably shouldn’t laugh, but I couldn’t help it. Because if there was one thing I hated, it was assholes who thought they could push someone around. Especially assholes proudly wearing the fucking Horizon logo in the middle of Lotus which was supposed to be my escape from those corporate fuckwads.

Clearly that’d been wishful thinking. That logo design couldn’t be a coincidence, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the reason I was seeing a bunch of those tabards dotting the town square being worn by higher level characters was because paying for early access for people to sign up to their little virtual army and invade the competition was exactly the kind of asshole move those corporate pricks at Horizon would pull.

It was game on, and that was worth a chuckle. I didn’t think Horizon would follow me to Lotus, but if they were here then I was going to play.

And I’d already demonstrated time and again that I was the best at this game. At the risk of sounding like a boasting gamer badass myself, these assholes didn’t know what they’d just gotten themselves into, for all that they sort of held the upper hand at the moment.

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<<Chapter 19Chapter 21>>

Spellcraft Chapter 19: NPCs

I stopped and stared at the entrance. The thing was fucking impressive.

I mean the wall itself around Nilbog wasn’t all that impressive. In fact it was downright sad. We’re talking it wouldn’t be all that difficult for an invading army of level one bunny rabbits to invade the place, let alone defending from some of the monsters that were no doubt lurking in the wilds around the town.

Not that it was likely any of those monsters would leave their pathing out in the wilds to come in here and start some trouble, but you never knew.

No, the amazing thing was how realistic everything looked and felt. I was getting an overwhelming feeling of awe all over again. Seeing the forest had been amazing, but seeing a living and breathing town with players and NPCs moving around and interacting and not being able to tell the difference between what I was seeing and the real world?

That was something else.

“Keep it moving,” a goblin guard said, waving his hand in a half-assed gesture and a bored tone that made it clear he could’ve used a more mentally stimulating job.

Huh. That was interesting. Those assholes in the forest had been talking like they owned this town, but the guard were still goblins? There was something to that, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that something was.

It was something to file away for later, at least.

“I think he’s talking to us,” Kristoph said.

I started. I’d been busy looking around at the “small town” that really felt more like a small city now that we were getting a look up close. I took a deep breath.

“What are you doing?” Kristoph asked. “Didn’t you see the guard telling us to move it? We need to be moving. Not standing here smelling the roses.”

“We’re players and that guard is an NPC,” I said. “What he wants doesn’t matter. Now take a deep breath and tell me what you smell.”

Though I felt a little bad for saying that what the goblin NPC wanted didn’t matter. After that experience with the goblin in the forest I was having second thoughts about just how expendable some of the goblins in this area were. Especially if those Horizon assholes were treating those goblins like expendable assets.

Kristoph obliged, but he took a deep breath with his mouth rather than his nose. His eyes started watering and he stuck his tongue out and tried to paw at it with his hands.

“Oh fuck!” he shouted. “I can fucking taste it! What the fuck is that?”

“That’s the smell of a town in a fantasy world that doesn’t have modern sanitation,” I said. “At least it’s what the developers think a fantasy town that doesn’t have modern sanitation is supposed to smell like.”

Smell. It was so simple, but it was literally a game changer. Smell wasn’t something I’d ever experienced in any other game, not even the modules Horizon had put out into the world which had felt revolutionary while we were playing them, but now the smell hit me with all the force of slamming into a brick wall of stench as a small but potent reminder that yup. Lotus were the masters.

“It smells like a barn on one of the agro levels we visited for a field trip back in elementary school,” Kristoph said. “Talk about a memory that’s never going to leave me.”

I nodded. Kristoph had a point. That happened from time to time. I took another deep breath, for all that it was a breath that had my eyes watering too.

“Don’t worry too much buddy,” I said, clapping him on the back. “You’ll get used to the smell soon enough.”

“Says you,” Kristoph said. “What if this doesn’t work the same in the game as it does in the real world? What if whatever it is that makes us forget a smell isn’t the same here? Maybe they got that wrong and we’re going to be stuck smelling shit for all of eternity.”

“You’re crazy man,” I said.

“Crazy because I have to smell this literal shitstorm in my nose,” Kristoph said.

I laughed as we walked on under the irritated watchful gaze of the guard we’d ignored. Not that I gave two fucks about the opinions of an NPC whose sole reason for existing was directing being a glorified in-game traffic cop.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t give a shit about what he thought because he was an NPC. I didn’t give a shit because of the whole glorified traffic cop thing. There was a subtle but important difference there.

Kristoph was right. The smell was going to be a problem if it didn’t fade over time. Heck, even if it did fade over time it was still a stink I could’ve done without. I wondered if there was a way to take care of that, and a window popped up that had all sorts of options for how sensitive I wanted my various senses to be. 

Interestingly there was an option to turn down pain that seemed ominous, but for the moment I settled on turning down the scent just a touch. I had a sinking feeling that pain toggle was going to come in handy soon enough though.

I figured telling Kristoph about that little feature could wait, though. Letting him suffer for a little while seemed like a good joke.

Though the smell would’ve been quickly forgotten regardless. I was busy feeling like I’d just stepped out of my sepia-toned home in Kansas into the technicolor virtual reality wonderland surrounding us. Sure there were also legs sticking out from under my house which, in this tortured metaphor that’s about to be put out of its misery, was the stench of manure or whatever the fuck kind of shit that was.

Not that I cared. I was too busy staring at all the impressive shit all around me.

Everything looked so real. I’d expected some cue, some pixelation, some glitching here and there, anything to tip off my brain that I was in a video game, but there was none of that.

A cart pulled by a giant lizard creature that owed a little of its design to ancient lizardy dinosaur art back before paleontologists started discovering feather imprints in fossil beds rolled by in the distance. The thing trumpeted as it shook its head and snorted. Mud splatted as the cart kicked it up under the wagon spokes, and I could even hear wood creaking as it rolled along.

An even louder noise overhead drew my attention. A massive airship floated above us, though I couldn’t tell how the thing was floating up there. Magic of some sort, obviously, since there were no steampunk elements like massive propellers or a balloon holding it aloft.

I wanted to get on that thing and figure out how it worked. It looked massive flying low over the city. The thing looked to be made entirely of wood, and I had a brief image of standing on the prow of one of those beauties watching the game world laid out before me as I thrust my hands out and declared that I was the king of this world.

Now that would be living the life in this game! Even if I would be far from the king of this world considering that was probably just a convenient method of transport taking people between various towns across the world and not something that could be created, owned, and weaponized by players.

Still, a guy could dream.

“Damn,” Kristoph said.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore?” I asked.

“Kansas isn’t in Kansas anymore after the supercell outbreak of…”

“Yeah, whatever,” I said.

“I’m just saying,” Kristoph said. “But this place is amazing. Like I thought they did up the starting area to impress us, but it’s all like this!”

“Yup,” I said, taking in the sights and listening to the sounds and trying my best to ignore some of the interesting smells that were breaking through even though I’d turned that sense down just a touch.

I didn’t want to think about how bad it’d be if I hadn’t discovered that sensory slider.

NPCs moved all around us, and a good chunk of those NPCs weren’t human. No, they looked an awful lot like the goblin we’d saved in the forest, though technically it’d been that disembodied girl who’d done the saving. There was a wide variety of the half-sized green creatures walking around. Old. Young. Women. Men.

“This place is full of goblins,” Kristoph said.

“Yup,” I said. “How ‘bout that? Goblins in a goblin town. I bet you’d be surprised to find Japanese people when you visited Japan, too.”

“I would be surprised to find Japanese people in Japan considering how overrun it’s been by thirsty white dudes going on spirit quests to find their Japanese waifus,” Kristoph said.

I snorted at that. Which drew the attention of an old goblin woman carrying a basket full of withered apples. She glared at us like she didn’t care for me randomly laughing. Weird.

“What’s your problem lady?” Kristoph asked, which seemed a bit impolite.

“Dude, be nice to the lady,” I said.

Kristoph looked at me like I was an alien who’d come down from another world to announce they came in peace or something.

“Why should I be nice to the lady?” he asked. “She’s just an NPC.”

“Yeah, but that’s how those Horizon assholes are treating these goblins,” I said. “Do you want to be no better than some assfuck with the Horizon name plastered all over them?”

Kristoph was still looking at me like I was just a touch crazy, but he shook his head.

“Whatever,” he said, turning back to the goblin and smiling the sort of strained smile that was usually the domain of fathers who realized their daughter had just brought a tweaker home for dinner.

“Is there something wrong ma’am?” he asked, even nodding his head just a bit.

“Terrible crop this year with the frost and now all these newcomers making their way through town causing trouble,” she muttered loud enough to be heard.

“Better get used to the newcomers,” I said. “There’s gonna be a lot more here soon.”

If the old goblin had a problem with the newcomers who’d entered her world during early access then she was really going to have issues now that the game was open to anyone who could afford it.

Sure the game world was gigantic. Literally several times the size of earth which they could get away with since this was a video game with arbitrary physical constants and not a large rocky planet in the real world. 

Still, the floodgates were open now and I would’ve bet good money I didn’t have that there was going to be an influx of players that stretched the limits of this world’s capacity, even if this area wasn’t going to get hit with everyone at once like with older MMO launches. Even the region based nature of how people were dumped into the game wasn’t going to affect things too much since the whole world was dotted with arcologies that each held more people than some of the largest metro areas had held back when humanity had still been building urban sprawl horizontally rather than vertically.

The goblin puckered her lips and glared at us, then walked off muttering about newcomers and how the last thing they needed was more strangers coming into the world. 

“She’s going to have a bad time if she doesn’t like strangers,” Kristoph said. “Weird that she would be so against player characters though.”

“Seems like the early access people were assholes,” I said. “They’ve had a month to run around and cause trouble.”

“I guess you have a point there,” Kristoph said. “If they treat all the goblins like they did that poor little bastard running through the forest I can see why they’re a little pissy at the thought of more players.”

I thought about Rezzik running through the forest terrified for his life. “That also means they’ve had a month to get themselves established. Sounds like it’s not established in a good way if the locals are complaining like that.”

“Yup,” Kristoph said. “Here’s hoping we don’t get the stinkeye from every NPC we run into because all the early access people were assholes like those guys we ran into back in the forest.”

I decided to try something. I was so used to games where the NPCs walked past saying the same thing over and over again that I wanted to test Lotus. See if it really was everything they’d been promising. Sure everything looked impressive so far, but the game world would still get pretty boring if all the NPCs had the same old canned responses.

The last thing I needed was the Lotus equivalent of an NPC being a smug asshole about how often I visited the Cloud District.

Quite often Nazeem, thank you very much. I’m the thane and the Dragonborn and way richer than you could ever hope to be with an entourage of deadly followers, summoned demons, and armor literally made out of the terrifying flying lizard creatures that have you running in terror, and you want to get smug with me?

I took a deep breath. Emulating Skyrim was sort of a rite of passage for gamers these days since it still held up with mods and it was free, and I still had some issues with some of the old dialogue. Right now I needed to forget Nazeem and focus on this new NPC.

“Hey! Old woman!”

“Man,” Kristoph said.

I turned to him. “What?”

“Man. Her name is Dennis,” Kristoph said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes. “Are you fucking serious?”

“I’m totally serious,” Kristoph said with another eyebrow wiggle. “And we can talk about the first part if you buy a girl a drink.”

I gave Kristoph a shove. The old goblin woman looked between us like we were crazy. I wanted to test her reactions, though, and this was a perfect opportunity.

So I stuck my tongue out at her. To my puerile delight her face screwed up in confusion. As though she was trying to decide whether or not I’d just insulted her. Maybe throwing out the raspberry wasn’t a universal insult in this particular fantasy world.

“I don’t think she knows what you’re doing,” Kristoph said.

“I really hope this isn’t one of those settings where the creators came up with their own set of lame substitute swear words and rude gestures,” I said.

“Fucking idiots,” the old woman grumbled.

I grinned. Those words seemed to mean the same thing in the game world as they did in the real world, at least.

“So your first action in this game is to pick a bunch of flowers, and your second action is to stick your tongue out at some poor old goblin woman who can’t defend herself?” Kristoph asked.

“Well it’s better than how you were acting to her at first,” I said. “Why, did you have a better idea?”

Kristoph rolled his eyes, but I didn’t care. Besides, what was the point of a video game if I didn’t screw around with the game world just a little? Wasn’t the whole point to have fun?

My idea of fun was figuring out what made a game tick by pushing at the edges, and then thoroughly breaking it. I figured I was just getting started, even if insulting an old goblin woman was hardly an auspicious start.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s see what there is to see in some of the more well traveled parts of town. We might even visit the Cloud District equivalent.”

“Fucking Nazeem,” Kristoph muttered under his breath.

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<<Chapter 18Chapter 20>>

Spellcraft Chapter 18: Reagents

I turned to my inventory and had another look at the little yellow flowers I’d been collecting. I pulled up the tooltip for the Nhewb’s Blessing and realized there was a little “…” at the bottom. I thought of that spot and it highlighted with a flash and brought up a new menu.

Well then. I guess if anything the menu was going to be consistent in its operation.

Effects:

?????

Why don’t you put it in your mouth? See how it feels?

I blinked a couple of times. That seemed almost like the game was hitting on me, and not in a good way. Though admittedly most of my experience with being hit on were some of the tweakers on our level shouting the kind of things I’m not going to repeat here when they were lucid enough to think about attacking some poor kid just trying to go from his house to school and back.

“That’s helpful,” I muttered, pushing the thoughts of tweakers and what they might do to some kid they caught out all alone out of my head. “And fucking creepy.”

I didn’t think something I found in a starter area would kill me, but stranger things had happened in games. Sure most asshole game design had gone out the door along with the first death of the adventure game genre in the ‘90s, but there were devs who grew up on those games, fondly remembered how they hurt players so good, and tossed in the occasional reminder for the kids these days.

“What’s wrong?” Kristoph asked.

I jumped and looked up. Kristoph was right there staring down at me wiggling his eyebrows. He knew he’d startled me, and he was loving the fuck out of it.

“Aren’t you supposed to be fighting wolves in there?” I asked.

Though come to think of it I hadn’t heard him calling out to those wolves for the past couple of minutes. I probably should’ve been paying more attention to that considering his silence could’ve meant our buddies Kravos and Gregor had returned to dance with us again.

“I don’t think they spawn this close to the edge of the forest,” he said. “That or they only come at you when you’re brand new to the game or something. I don’t know. I’m not a scenario designer for Lotus.”

“Probably a good thing too,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said. “I can’t find any wolf heads to bash, so that means I can come out here and bother you again! We both win!”

“For certain definitions of winning,” I muttered.

“Stop grousing,” he said. “So what’s the problem?”

“If I want to find out what this flower does I have to eat it,” I said. “And I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

Kristoph laughed. A deep laugh that had his shoulders shaking and tears streaming down his face. I thought he was overdoing it just a little, but Kristoph seemed to really be enjoying himself so I figured I’d let him have his fun considering he’d been such a good sport about keeping those wolves off me while I was picking the damn flowers in the first place.

“Fun little profession you picked there man,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d go eating random stuff in the middle of a forest. Seems like a bad idea. Those flowers are probably covered in wolf shit, and who knows who they ate before shitting them out.”

I rolled my eyes. Something told me Kristoph wouldn’t be all that unhappy to see me die the game equivalent of a painful death, or at least deal with some painful side effects, as payback for all his precious time I’d just “wasted” picking flowers.

That also got my back up. If he was going to be an ass about this then I was going to show him what I was made of, damn it.

“I’ll show you,” I muttered.

I focused my mind on one of the stacks. It brightened and then I held a petal in my hand as though by magic. Which it sort of was, in a virtual reality sort of way.

Well then. That was a neat trick.

I stared at the petals. I figured most games had a mechanic where you figured out whether or not something was useful, at least when it came to brewing potions, by tasting it. So it’s not like this was all that different. Not to mention the game had been pretty forward about what the fuck I needed to do with that cheesy line about putting it in my mouth and seeing how it felt.

I shivered as I thought of a few times when I’d heard something similar from some of the tweakers. The less I thought about that the better.

I weighed my possible death from eating these flowers against Kristoph’s annoying but reasonable warning about eating random things I found in the game world.

Sure there was a chance it could be a negative experience, but once again I was putting faith, perhaps a bit misguided, in the hope that the developers wouldn’t put something too dangerous in a starter zone, and certainly not in an item that was clearly designed for new players to find.

Not to mention there was more than a little annoyance at Kristoph and his attitude that was pushing me at this point. Once that happened there was nothing that would stop me.

I put the petal in my mouth and chewed. I figured the negative consequences, if there were any, shouldn’t be too bad if I just ate the one petal. I hoped.

I swallowed. And for a wonder I felt invigorated. Like I hadn’t done anything in the way of combat since starting this game, but I suddenly felt like I could go through this entire forest with my starter sword and kill the fuck out of every wolf that dared to get in my way in a convenient one-at-a-time routine.

Along with that feeling of invincibility came another popup.

Nhewb’s Blessing: The goddess Nhewb, patron of those starting out on a journey or those who are too new to something to realize how little they know, has blessed you with a 5% bonus to attack, health, and defense. The effect lasts for 0.5 hours. Try not to be in the middle of combat with something too dangerous when it wears off, noob.

I couldn’t help but smile at that tooltip. Someone in the dev team had obviously had a little bit of fun writing that. Sure they were also insulting me just a little, but for a bonus like that I’d take some insults.

“How ‘bout that,” I said.

“What?” Kristoph said.

“This little flower petal gives a five percent bonus to everything when you chow down on it,” I said. I looked up at him with a smug smile. He might not be into crafting, but he certainly spoke the language of combat bonuses.

“Seriously?” Kristoph asked, looking down the trail we’d just blazed like he was thinking about going back to get some flower petals of his own. “Fuck! Would’ve been nice to have that while I was fighting off those wolves.”

“Yeah, but then you would’ve had to eat a flower covered in wolf shit,” I said. “Wouldn’t you rather risk becoming wolf shit than do that?”

“Shut up and let me try one of those,” Kristoph said.

“You sure?” I said. “I wouldn’t want you to lose your lunch smelling wolf shit or anything.”

“Yes I’m sure,” he said, rolling his eyes.

I looked into my inventory again. Stared at one of the flower petals until it came into my hand. I held it up and Kristoph tried to snatch it out of my hands, but I was faster than him and pulled it back before he could get the goods.

“What the fuck Conlan?”

“What do you say?”

He muttered something under his breath that was too low for me to catch. I pulled one of the petals out of my inventory and held it up. He tried to grab it out of my hand, but I pulled back.

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t quite hear that,” I said. “Could you maybe say it a little louder?”

I got an idea. I thought about recording something happening in the game the same as I would if we were in a Horizon module and sure enough a little icon came up that told me everything was now being added to my personal recording folder.

“I said you were right and I was wrong,” Kristoph growled. “Happy?”

I thought about the recording stopping and it dutifully did so. Then I thought about it playing and it appeared over my shoulder which had been how it worked in Horizon modules. I was starting to think those controls weren’t a Horizon thing so much as they were built in Lotus controls that Horizon had adapted.

“Maybe,” I said, handing him the petal as his face darkened while he watched the recording of his apology. “Chew it and tell me what happens.”

Kristoph eyed the petal suspiciously, then stuffed it in his mouth. He chewed slowly at first, but his jaw picked up speed as the effect hit. His eyes went wide, and the glare from moments ago was almost entirely gone.

“Holy shit,” he breathed. “Are they really giving us that kind of bonus?”

“And you said it was a waste of time for me to go picking flowers,” I said.

“I still think it’s a waste of time, but it paid off this time,” Kristoph said. “You got lucky.”

I shook my head and sighed. That was about what I’d expected, but at least my buddy and hetero gaming life partner could appreciate what we’d found.

“Yeah, well we’ll see what tune you’re singing when you want one of these from me before we go leveling,” I said.

“Keep telling yourself that,” he said. “I could always go out into the forest and collect them myself.”

I hit him with a look that said we both knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that he was going to do anything of the sort. Even for a bonus like that.

The bonus was pretty amazing. I could still remember a time when I was playing on a classic World of Warcraft pirate server that ran on a Lich King build. That was one of the more popular servers for pirate builds since it was considered by many to be the pinnacle of the game.

I’d started a new priest. Not exactly a class known for its combat prowess. Especially at lower levels. Some joker had gone and killed Onyxia because there were still some geezers on those pirate servers reliving their college days in the early ‘00s.

Those types never ceased to be amazed and amused that they could kill vanilla raid bosses all by their lonesome. Especially considering they used to have to walk uphill in the snow both ways to even collect the reagents to allow them to successfully enter the raid instance with thirty-nine of their best buddies. At least to hear them tell the story.

The point is I happened to be in the capital city when the dragon’s blessing hit. Sure it was an old buff, but it still checked out. And for the couple of hours while I had the dragon’s blessing on my new priest character I could one shot anything with my puny hammer, which was impressive considering priests didn’t have any physical attack abilities.

It lasted up until I got to about level ten. Which I did in record time thanks to that blessing. I wasn’t going to sneeze at any bonus that gave us a leg up in this new world. Especially not a bonus that seemed that good.

Admittedly I didn’t know enough about how the game’s mechanics worked, practically speaking, to know whether or not this was as good as it seemed. Still, it was an exciting discovery. I wondered if anyone else knew about this.

And not knowing how well this worked practically wasn’t going to stop me from lording my discovery over Kristoph for a little while.

“Admit it,” I said. “I found something pretty fucking impressive. This is going to make leveling a breeze.”

Kristoph rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Can we finally go into town now?”

I tapped my finger against my chin as though I was thinking about it, then grinned when Kristoph looked like he was about to pull out that two handed hammer and see whether or not PvP was enabled in this area.

Given the way those two assholes had been threatening us earlier I figured the answer to that was a definite yes, and I wasn’t in a mood to feel that hammer slamming into my skull. Not when I’d seen what the thing did to any wolf skulls it came in contact with.

“Yeah, I think it’s time to get a move on,” I said. “We’ve been spending way too much fucking time killing wolves and picking flowers in the forest anyway.”

Not that I really thought we’d been wasting our time. I had a familiar tingling running along my scalp that told me I was onto something here. That these flowers were the first step towards figuring out how to break the game.

Oddly it felt like a lot more time had passed in the game world than in the real world if the clock was anything to go by. I figured maybe it was just that I was having so much fun I’d lost track of that time. Either way it was time to move on and see what there was to see in Nilbog where the Horizon assholes dwelled.

“Great,” Kristoph said, turning towards Nilbog. It’d still be a bit of a walk to get there.

“Come on,” I said. “At least we won’t have to worry about any more rabid wolves coming at us while we’re walking through cultivated fields.”

“Yeah, but we might have to worry about those assholes finding us,” Kristoph said.

I sighed. Kristoph had a point. What we were about to find in this town might be way worse than anything we’d faced out in the woods, but we had to go in there and see what there was to see.

“Come on,” I said. “There’s only one way to find out. Besides, something tells me trying to find the next nearest town is only going to get our asses killed as we stumble through some really scary shit out there in wilds filled with scary monsters.”

“You’ve got a point,” Kristoph said.

So we stepped out into the fields surrounding the town that I hoped would be our base of operations as we took our first steps into this brave new gaming world. Assuming it wasn’t already overrun with so many Horizon assholes that we could make it our home away from home in this digital world.

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<<Chapter 17Chapter 19>>

Spellcraft Chapter 17: Combat Craft

“So are you going to help out here at all?” Kristoph asked through gritted teeth.

It was sort of understandable that he’d be gritting his teeth right about now. After all, he had his hands on either side of the haft to his massive axe looking for all the world like he was in the middle of one hellacious bench press.

Though it was my understanding that typically when someone was doing a bench press the weight was coming from metal plates on either side of the weight bar, and not from the weight of a very rabid looking wolf trying its best to chew its way through the bar to get at the soft and squishy human waiting on the other side.

Then again it’s not like I had much experience with the weight room in the real world to begin with. We had one at our school, but it was a place where Trent and his friends usually hung out so I tended to avoid it like it was the epicenter of a testosterone and steroids fueled zombie bro plague.

“It looks like you’ve got everything well in hand man,” I said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked. “Is this seriously your idea of having things well in hand?”

He used his rage to shove the wolf off him. The bad part was the thing took his hammer along with. He hopped to his feet in an impressive feat and stood there looking at the wolf using his hammer haft as a chew toy with a look that was somewhere between confused and bemused.

“Here,” I said, pulling my sword out of my inventory again. “This might help.”

I tossed it to him. He watched the thing arc through the air and then didn’t catch it. It landed point down in the forest floor, wobbling back and forth a bit and looking utterly useless.

“Was that supposed to help me or something?” he said.

“Well yeah. You said you needed a weapon and I tossed you a weapon,” I said. “Usually that’s the point where you take the weapon I’m offering you and use it to kill the nasty monster threatening you.”

“I don’t do swords,” Kristoph said.

He walked over to the wolf and straight up punched the thing on the top of the head. It let out a yelp of surprise and pulled away from the hammer, staring up at Kristoph like it was trying to figure out what the fuck was wrong with a beefy human that would engage it in hand to hand combat.

Not that it was hand to hand combat for long. No, Kristoph stomped on the hammer haft and it twirled in the air as it flew up and he grabbed it deftly, looking for all the world like a slightly less imposing Thor from those ancient Marvel movies that’d been so popular once upon a time.

“So I’m killing shit while you gather?” he said. “That’s how it’s gonna be?”

“That’s how it’s gonna be,” I said with a wink. “Good luck!”

Kristoph rolled his eyes, then turned and faced down the wolf with his hammer held at the ready. I knew he was loving this, for all that he was acting annoyed.

Satisfied that Kristoph was having his own brand of fun, I went back to gathering as many of the little yellow flowers as I could find. Which was easy because there were a lot of the fuckers all around us.

I made sure to keep a wary eye out for any additional wolves that might be lurking in the shadows. The last thing I wanted was to have a wolf come up and “take a bite out of my ass while I was presenting it picking flowers,” as Kristoph had so eloquently put it.

Kristoph swung his massive two-handed hammer at the wolf. The thing yelped and let out little cries of pain every time the hammer made contact. Yeah, it looked like Kristoph had things well in hand.

Though I did wince as I watched Kristoph beating the shit out of the unfortunate digital wolf. I wondered if the AI monsters were advanced enough that they could feel pain, then dismissed that as ridiculous. It would be needlessly cruel to do something like that to the poor AI creatures inhabiting this world.

“This! Is! What! You! Get! For! Sneaking! Up! On! Me! You! Furry! Bitch!” Kristoph shouted, punctuating every word with another hit.

I smiled and shook my head. It really was nice of that wolf to come along and take some of the heat off of me by giving Kristoph something to do.

There was a final yelp and then silence. I looked up to see Kristoph looking every inch the mighty warrior. He sucked in deep lungfuls of air as he leaned on his hammer and stared at me with a mixture of annoyance and bemusement. It didn’t help that he was covered in blood, though he wasn’t cursing up a blue storm so I assumed none of that blood was his blood.

“You really weren’t going to help out, were you?” he said, sounding scandalized.

“I feel like I was pretty up front with you about that from the beginning,” I said.

“So what, you like the idea of me becoming wolf kibble?” he asked.

“It looked like you had things well in hand,” I said, reaching down and tapping another cluster of the yellow flowers to add them to my inventory.

Kristoph grinned. “You bet your ass I did! That was fucking awesome!”

He turned to the dark forest around us. “You hear that wolf bitches? Any more of you want to play, Kristoph has what you want!”

He whirled his hammer around so it landed in his hand with a meaty smack and then twirled it by the haft a couple of times. His look as he stared out into the woods challenging any roving wolves to bring it was downright unhinged.

It was one of those moments when I was really glad Kristoph was on my side.

“Come on,” Kristoph said, looking at the path of arboreal destruction I’d left behind us while he was leaving his own path of lupine destruction. “You grabbed all the flowers here. Let’s move on to the next bunch.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “You’re not going to gripe about me gathering shit?”

“Why fight it? You get to pick your fucking flowers and I get to do real gaming instead of standing here watching you pick a bunch of fucking flowers,” Kristoph said. “Seems like a win for both of us!”

I hit Kristoph with a one fingered gesture that meant the same thing in the modern cyberpunk reality I found myself in as it had since time immemorial. Kristoph rolled his eyes and went back to swinging his hammer and glaring at the trees as though he was daring them to release more wolves at us. And the forest obliged now that he was making enough noise to draw every wolf in the forest.

I just hoped it didn’t draw those damned griefers down on us. I was still pretty confident that they weren’t coming at us for whatever reason, but that didn’t stop me from looking over my shoulder every couple of flowers I picked to make sure they weren’t coming at us for whatever reason.

Not that an early warning would’ve done much more than let me know the end was nigh.

We settled into a rhythm after that. A rhythm that didn’t involve nearly as much bitching from Kristoph, which I was thankful for. The monsters around here were mostly low level, and Kristoph was plenty good at drawing their attention with all his hammer whirling and shouting into the woods.

I happily walked along behind my murderous friend tapping flower after flower as I went on my own plant-based murder spree, though eventually the flowers and the roving wolves started to thin out as the forest got more sparse around us and things started to look a bit more civilized as the forest ended and cultivated fields began with a quaint but decent sized fantasy hamlet off in the distance.

Smoke curled from chimneys rising above the houses both closer in dotting the fields and in the larger town in the distance. The place looked like the sort of matte painting that would appear in an old 1980s movie when they still had to rely on practical effects instead of cutting and pasting from a CG library to set the mood.

I couldn’t want to check it out.

“Those assholes will probably be in there,” Kristoph said. “At least they didn’t come after us in the forest.”

Suddenly I wasn’t as excited about checking the place out. If assholes like Gregor and Kravos were running the show here then the local in-game politics here were well and truly fucked. That brief respite killing wolves and gathering flowers and just playing the game had allowed me to forget all about those troubles for a little while.

“Yeah, I’m surprised they didn’t find us with the way you were swinging that hammer around and daring anything within shouting distance to attack us,” I said.

“Hey, if they came on me while I was in the zone they would’ve regretted it,” Kristoph said, reaching over his shoulder to tap his hammer. That love tap became an affectionate caress.

“I seriously doubt that,” I said. “But it’s nice you have dreams. Also, if you and your hammer need a moment alone in the woods I’m more than happy to give you a little bit of time.”

Kristoph hit me with the old one-fingered salute. I ignored it as I always did when we were flipping that salute back and forth.

“Hold on just a second,” I said. “Now that we’re taking a rest I want to have a look at what I’ve been gathering before we head into town to sell it.”

Kristoph rolled his eyes. “You’re seriously telling me you’ve been gathering that stuff and you don’t even know what it does? What if it’s worthless?”

I shrugged. “I was in the gather zone. Besides, it probably is worthless. We found it in a zone that featured wolves you could kill that helpfully threw themselves at you one at a time so you were never overwhelmed.”

I hit him with a significant look. A significant look, I might add, that was completely lost on him.

“You have that look like you’re trying to get one over on me and I don’t understand it,” Kristoph said.

“Let’s just say something tells me those player assholes wouldn’t have been as accommodating as some of those single file wolves if they happened upon us.”

“I resent that,” Kristoph said.

“As you should, O mighty warrior,” I said.

“Right. So you’re saying all that time you spent picking flowers was worthless,” Kristoph said. “That’s the takeaway I’m getting from this and no amount of you insulting my combat ability is going to distract me from that.”

“No more wasted than all the skill gains you got with that big honking hammer you love two-handing was wasted,” I replied. “Besides. These things are color coded yellow which seems to be stuff that’s around our level if the color on those wolves is anything to go on.”

Kristoph’s eyes narrowed. “Why do I get the feeling you’re making fun of me with that remark?”

“Probably because you resemble that remark my good man,” I said. “Now go polish your hammer some more while I do important work here. This shit might be worthless, but the stuff I find later in the game won’t be so I need to get some skill points while the getting is good.”

I turned back to my inventory, which was way bigger than I would’ve figured based on the tiny little bag hanging at my side. No doubt another nod to gameplay mechanics taking precedence over verisimilitude, but my storage space wasn’t limitless. I had ten inventory slots, and luckily the petals created stacks of thirty which meant even more carrying capacity.

In a crafting sense, at least.

Already I had about a hundred of the petals. I turned and looked at the path of gardening destruction I’d cut, though I couldn’t see too deep into the dark and semi-scary forest.

“Damn,” I breathed. “I guess I did get a little carried away with the whole gathering thing.”

“You think?” Kristoph asked. “You’re about to get an achievement for the longest walk from the starting area to the starting town.”

“I am?” I asked. “This game has achievements?”

“No idea,” Kristoph said. “But if you haven’t gotten one by now for “Lamest Obsession” then there probably aren’t.”

“You keep insulting me,” I said. “But you know you’re always singing a different tune when one of these plans comes together and we’re kicking ass thanks to me investing time in “lame obsessions” like picking flowers.”

“Says you,” Kristoph said. “I’m gonna go look for some more wolf heads to bash. You have fun smelling your flowers.”

“Whatever,” I muttered.

Kristoph wandered off into the forest shouting at the top of his lungs to try and attract some four legged furry friends to play with. Meanwhile I sat down and leaned against a tree.

It was time to look through the loot I’d grabbed. Sure it might not be shiny weapons, but with a little luck I’d be able to turn these skill points into shiny weapons with which to kick Horizon ass in the near future!

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<<Chapter 16Chapter 18>>

Spellcraft Chapter 16: Gatherer

I didn’t stop picking flowers as I had a look at the Gathering skill tree. It was easy enough to keep tapping yellow flowers on autopilot in the background behind the translucent skill tree screen that I could see through easily enough.

I’d unlocked Gathering:Herbs, but there was also a skill tree for Gathering:Mining. Which was a delightfully unoriginal way for the game to tell me that armor and weapon crafting were also available skills in the game. Which told me there had to be an entirely different set of skill trees for crafting stuff that I couldn’t see yet because I hadn’t unlocked any of the skills by sitting down at a forge and figuring out how the hell that kind of crafting worked in this game.

I imagined someone out there was going to start doing a brisk business at some point compiling all the different skill trees and telling players how to unlock them. It was very old school of Lotus to throw players to the metaphorical wolves and not hold their hands all the way to skill mastery, but I kind of liked it like that. 

It made me feel like I was in the Wild West days of the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Internet and MMOs had been new and anything went because nothing had been solidified into rules designed to help companies Hoover the greatest amount of money possible from their playerbase.

“It’s not telling me much,” I said.

“Sounds about right,” Kristoph said. “This game is old school. Now if you’re done picking flowers we might want to get a move on before those two assholes catch up to us?”

The window showing me the skill tree for Gathering:Herbs disappeared with a wave and I was back in the forest staring at a path that didn’t have nearly as many Nhewb’s Blessing flowers as it had moments ago. Huh. I’d really gone to town grabbing those things on autopilot while I was reading up on skill trees.

“Yeah, I guess I’m done picking flowers for now,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much more I can pick on this stretch of trail.”

“Then let’s get going,” Kristoph said. “We already ran into a goblin and a couple of player killers and that hottie with the disembodied voice, and I’m not in the mood to run into anything else that could kill us.”

“A hottie who you have no idea what she looks like, I might add,” I said with a smirk.

“Whatever. She sounded hot,” Kristoph said. “Now come on. We need to get a move on.”

I looked at the few remaining flowers. They had a faint glowing outline around them. Almost as though once I’d picked one flower the game was pointing them out to me.

That’d be helpful. Or it could be my imagination.

We picked a path through the forest in silence for a little while, but that silence didn’t last long. Kristoph kept glancing into the trees around us like he thought they were hiding more monsters. Or maybe players who’d try to kill us.

Which wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. This was a game, after all, and one of the hallmarks of most MMOs was there was plenty of stuff to kill and plenty of stuff looking to kill players. Monsters and players alike.

I didn’t figure that dynamic would be much different in the most advanced persistent online world ever created, though I did get the feeling that the methods for killing and being killed were going to be a hell of a lot more intense in Lotus than in others.

For all that those assholes hadn’t actually attacked us. Sure we’d been rescued, but Gregor had hesitated with his bow and arrow for some reason. I almost got the feeling there was something to that if I could just stop and reason it out, but Kristoph didn’t give me the chance.

“I really hope there aren’t any more griefer assholes lurking out there waiting to ruin our day,” Kristoph said.

I peered into the woods. The forest seemed like a pretty idyllic place. Like if we hadn’t been attacked by those player killers back in that clearing I would’ve thought we were going on a pleasant stroll through a wooded park in a richer part of the arcology where they could afford to waste money on things like putting together wooded parks and all the infrastructure that was required for maintaining a forest on a skyscraper that reached into the upper atmosphere.

Basically this was the kind of thing I was never going to see on our level in the cramped house I lived in with my parents. For now. Until graduation at the end of this school year when they’d made it clear I was going to be out on my own, which was something I tried not to think about too much considering I didn’t have much hope of moving onto higher education considering I wasted most of my study time playing games.

I focused on the game to distract myself from thoughts of the unpleasantness the future held for me in just a few months if I didn’t figure out something to save my ass when my parents kicked me out.

“I’m not that worried now,” I said.

“You aren’t?” Kristoph asked.

“Nah,” I said. “Maybe those guys came back, but this is a thick forest.”

“And we’re walking along an obvious path leading from the starter area to the biggest town nearby,” Kristoph pointed out. “Doesn’t take a tracking genius to figure out the most likely path we’re taking.”

“Yeah, but it just feels like if they were going to attack us they would’ve done it already,” I said.

Again there was that feeling that there was something I was missing. Some game system or something that was keeping them from coming after us. I really should’ve spent more time reading up on the game’s mechanics and less time reading up on loot tables, but it was too late for that now.

It’s not like I was going to log out of the game to try and figure out why those assholes might’ve given up the chase before it started.

“Whatever. I think what we really have to worry about are monsters our level like that wolf,” I said, leaning down to tap a new group of Nhewb’s Blessing flowers and add them to my inventory. “I’m pretty sure those dudes and that goblin and your allege hot chick were a fluke.”

“Right, and the last thing we need to do if we’re worried about a low level wolf taking a bite out of our ass is bend over presenting an easy target because we’re picking flowers,” Kristoph said.

“Whatever,” I muttered.

I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked, which made sense considering the whole point of a game like this was to get players good and addicted so they kept paying their monthly subscription.

I was getting one hell of a shot of brain pleasure juices every time I tapped a yellow flower and got a notification that I’d added a new cluster of petals to my inventory. I’d even gained enough points in Gathering: Herbs to raise my overall gathering skill by a single point, which gave sent another shot straight to the pleasure centers in my brain.

“This is going to take awhile, isn’t it?” Kristoph asked. “Like there’s no way I’m going to convince you to not stop and smell the flowers at this point, is there?”

I grunted. Kristoph would understand the meaning behind that grunt. It was a grunt he’d heard often enough. The way he rolled his eyes when he heard that grunt was something I’d seen often enough, for that matter.

What can I say? I’d always enjoyed gathering things in a game world and making things out of the things I gathered, and Kristoph was used to it for all that he liked to grouse about it. It was the same as how I liked to grouse about how the only thing he liked doing was smashing things with his hammer, for all that his desire to smash things with his hammer usually dovetailed nicely with my desire to gather materials from the game world since those material nodes were usually surrounded by monsters that didn’t want you to get at them.

It was my thing. While other people were off killing monsters in NuWoW I’d dug up an ancient mod that took maps of all the ore and herb nodes in a zone and created a best fit path through the zone so I could fly around and gather to my heart’s content. There was something zen about zoning out and gathering while a podcast or a show played in the background.

In Lotus the experience was unlike any gathering I’d done in other games. I didn’t have a podcast or a show playing in the background because this was new enough that I wanted to concentrate, but it was still entrancing. It felt all too real, but with the addictive overlay of a video game and leveling up a skill tree to really drive home the addiction.

It was enough to make me wonder about the other skills that were on offer. I wondered what it would take to get into the mining skill, for example. Or get into crafting some potions or something from the flower petals I was gathering. One thing was for sure, I’d need a lot of this stuff if I wanted to level my Alchemy, or whatever the fuck they called potion creation in this game.

“Are you seriously going to pick all these flowers?” Kristoph asked.

“Hey, I’ve only picked a few of the damn things,” I said. “Besides. You never know. These things could be worth some money. I bet they have an auction house or something we can use to make some coin.”

“You and your obsession with in-game money,” Kristoph said.

“Forgive me for wanting to make some extra scratch,” I said. “Extra money means we’ll have funds if we need to pull a job.”

“You think we’ll need to pull a job in Lotus?” Kristoph asked, sounding incredulous.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why the fuck is the Horizon name all over that armor? And why is that guild called Horizon Dawn? It smells.”

I honestly didn’t know if we’d need to pull a job, but I kept thinking about that gear I’d seen on those two assholes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something going on with Horizon in this game, and we were going to run into those corporate pricks sooner rather than later.

Assuming we hadn’t already run into those corporate pricks in the person of those two wannabe player killer assholes trying and failing to kill that goblin.

“Yeah, right,” Kristoph said. “If you want some money in the game to make up for not having jack shit in the real world that’s your business.”

I ignored the jab. It helped that Kristoph was just as dirt poor as me and everyone else on our level.

Everyone but Trent and his friends. I frowned. It still bothered me that I hadn’t been able to figure out how the fuck they managed to get into the early access, but I pushed those thoughts away. I had new thoughts to occupy my mind now for the first time since we pulled that job on the Horizon Gamemaster, and it felt good to be dusting off the cobwebs.

Gathering herbs was opening my mind to a world of potential gaming commerce just waiting for us to seize the opportunity, and I found myself hoping against hope that this game actually encouraged players to craft interesting things rather than making crafting nothing more than a lame add-on to the raiding experience like other popular juggernaut MMOs that may or may not look like MoM when the letters for its acronym were flipped upside down.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Kristoph said. “And it’s not going to work. You’ve been chasing that dream in every MMO we’ve played from pirate Vanilla WoW servers to NeoSWG to NuWoW and you’re always disappointed. The closest we ever came was that pirate DAoC server running classic and Shrouded Isles. You know the most the Lotus people are going to let you do is make some interesting armor for leveling or some potions that give raiders an edge.”

I looked down at the flowers in my inventory. Thought of all the games we’d played together. All the times I’d hoped and prayed this game would be the one to really open up the world and deliver on the “anything goes” promise that a good MMO, not one of those on-rails theme parks that’d become the norm since WoW solidified the template and killed it, should be.

“No,” I said. “I refuse to believe that. Everything else about this game is so amazing and immersive and open. They’re not going to fuck up crafting.”

“Yeah, we’ll see when we get to Nilbog and have a look around,” Kristoph said, taking a couple of steps and then turning to see if I was following and not picking more little yellow flowers.

It was at that moment that a wolf leapt out of the trees and landed on Kristoph with a muted thump and a snarl now that it’d revealed itself. I started and reached for my puny starter sword, but Kristoph seemed to have things in hand so I let the thing dematerialize back into my inventory.

At least he had his hammer up and the wolf was biting down on the handle rather than biting down on Kristoph’s neck. Kristoph tossed the wolf and stood, his chest heaving, as he held his hammer out in front of him and grinned with a crazed madness he always had when digital bloodlust got the btter of him.

“Now this is more like it,” he growled as he advanced on the wolf. “Way better than picking flowers!”

Meanwhile I went back to picking my flowers, relieved that Kristoph finally had something to occupy his attention that wasn’t bitching at me for gathering shit.

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<<Chapter 15Chapter 17>>

Spellcraft Chapter 15: Skill Unlocked!

“Look, I’m not trying to make a value judgement here or gross you out or anything. All I’m saying is you should think about it,” Kristoph said. “How would that even work in a world where someone has one set of parts in the real world and a different functional set in the game world? How does the game know what nerve endings to tickle to get things going?”

“Would you shut up about that already?” I asked. “I seriously don’t need to think about all this right now.”

“But if the game allows people to play characters of the opposite gender, and I know they do because I saw it in character select, then it stands to reason that they had to research how that all works. I mean we know in-game brothels are a thing because that girl mentioned it and…”

“Please,” I said through gritted teeth as I pushed branches out of the way. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up. There aren’t words to describe how utterly not interested I am in this conversation right now.”

It’s not that I particularly cared what gender someone chose when they logged into a game. The old acronym that “girl” in an MMO actually stood for Guy In Real Life was something I’d been familiarized with early on in my gaming career, though I’d always thought the kinds of people who tossed around terms like that tended to be assholes and I could understand why real girls playing games never opened up to them.

I really didn’t want to consider the implications of a game world where the person playing an insanely hot elf priestess or something was actually a neckbeard who bore more than a passing resemblance to the large mammals who used to perform at Sea World, but with more facial hair.

“Y’know that means the hottie hiding in the trees could very well be some overweight dude with more body hair than gorillas back before they went extinct in the wild,” I said.

“Yeah, but does it matter if she looks like a sweet little hottie in the game world?” Kristoph asked. “It’s like that dude said in the old Matrix movie. Y’know the one before that terrible remake? Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and I wouldn’t mind finding a little bliss in the game.”

“You’re impossible,” I said. “Honestly. The whole thirsty gamer dude in an MMO thing doesn’t work for you.”

“Says you,” Kristoph sniffed.

I looked at the forest around us to avoid Kristoph going on about gender roles in massive online games. It was my tried and true method for tuning Kristoph out. He knew to tap me to get my attention if there was something important going down. Otherwise the big guy was usually happy as long as he had someone to talk at.

As I looked around I spotted more of those small yellow flowers I’d seen back in the clearing. The flowers I hadn’t had time to inspect properly because the goblin had ruined any chance I had to look at them up close.

I had the time now, though. At least I was pretty sure those assholes weren’t following us, so I leaned down for a closer look. I reached out and brushed my fingers against a petal. A notification popped up in front of me that five flower petals had been added to my inventory along with an animation of the flower petals flying into my bag.

Huh. That was neat. It looked like the developers had decided to strike a balance between realism and gaming convenience, which included transferring crafting ingredients and whatnot into my inventory without me having to think about it overly much or actually pick them and put them in that bag.

A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.

Five Nhewb’s Blessing petals added to your inventory!

I was starting to get excited. If the things were flying into my inventory then those petals had to be some sort of reagent or something. Items in games had purpose, otherwise developers and art departments wouldn’t waste time on them.

Not to mention the text for these petals was the same yellow as that wolf pelt. I figured the fact that it was color coded and not greyed out meant these petals were more than trash to clutter up my inventory and be sold for a few coppers at the first merchant I found.

I suppressed a wave of excitement. The presence of reagents meant Lotus Online had crafting. I hadn’t found any crafting items while I was going through loot databases, but that was probably because I’d been looking through armor and weapons loot tables. I felt like an idiot now for not broadening my horizons.

Crafting was always a fun legit way to break a game by messing with the mechanics, but something told me it was going to be a lot more difficult to mess with the crafting mechanics in this game than in the single player or multiplayer Horizon modules I’d played and broken with Kristoph.

I grinned. As far as I was concerned that only meant that the rewards were going to be that much more amazing when I figured out how to break the crafting system. Assuming, of course, that the same attention to detail had been paid to making an intricate crafting system as to the rest of the game design.

The more intricate something was, the more rewarding it was when you figured out how to have your way with it. Complex systems yielded complex rewards and all that. I’d take advantage of a simple con or exploit if I found it, but something like this could very well be the magnum opus of my long and storied game breaking career.

And if Horizon really was hanging around in this game then I had a pretty fucking good idea of who I’d be bending over and giving a good fucking if I figured out how to break this game.

“Holy shit,” I said as a window popped up.

“Oh come on,” Kristoph said. “Are you seriously going to be that old fashioned about this sort of thing when you’ve been gaming your whole life? Remember Treasa who used to heal for us a few years back? I heard her on voice chat, and that deep voice didn’t belong to anyone who…”

“Shut up,” I said. “I think I found something important here.”

“Important?” Kristoph asked. “What’s up?”

“Hold on,” I said as my eyes darted across the notification window that’d popped up.

It let me know I’d unlocked the top level Gathering skill as well as the subskill of Herbs. Interesting. I also saw related subskills from other skill trees I hadn’t unlocked yet but were part of the overarching Gathering skill. It was like the game was encouraging me to unlock those new skill trees by giving me tantalizing glimpses of what else was possible.

“Wait, are you picking flowers?” Kristoph asked. “What the fuck could possibly be important about picking fucking flowers?”

“Maybe I am,” I said. “What’s it to you?”

Kristoph rolled his eyes and let out a long suffering sigh. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d been brought along for the ride as I gathered up reagents for crafting. It probably wouldn’t be the last time either if the suspicions about what I could do with the crafting system in this game were anywhere close to correct.

“I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with all that crafting crap,” Kristoph said.

I grinned as I looked down at the yellow flower petals in my inventory. I couldn’t quite describe what it was about gathering and crafting digital stuff that drew me in. I’d always loved crafting shit in game. There were times, before Diana’s accident, when I’d had more fun gathering and crafting things and playing the market on a game’s auction house than I did actually going out and playing the damn game.

The only problem with that was there were so many games where the developers seemed to think that crafting should be an afterthought, or only in service of lame things like raiding rather than being a pursuit innately worthy of investing time in because it was fun in and of itself. I’d always pined for a game where leveling crafting was just as rewarding as learning the intricacies of taking down raid bosses, with equivalent loot rewards, but I had yet to find a game with developers who felt the same way despite so much searching.

I was hopeful now though. So far everything else about Lotus Online had shown itself to be way more thought out and immersive than anything I’d ever found in another game. I could only hope the same would hold true for the crafting system.

Still, I had to phrase this in a way that Kristoph would appreciate if I wanted him onboard. Or at the very least if I wanted him to be patient enough to stand by while I gathered shit.

“You know how I feel about crafting,” I said. “It’s a good way to break a game, and breaking a game is what makes a game fun for me.”

“You and your game breaking,” Kristoph said. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe you could have more fun if you just played the damn game?”

He whipped out his two-handed hammer and whirled it around his head a couple of times. Of course he wasn’t nearly as skilled with that thing in this game so he nearly took his head off with some self-inflicted blunt force trauma. Though, come to think of it, he had a habit of nearly taking his head off with whatever weapon he was flourishing in just about every game we’d played using the Lotus hardware.

“Maybe it’d be more fun to play the game like the normies, but I seriously doubt it,” I said.

“Those normies are playing the game the right way man,” Kristoph said.

“Hey, I’m not going to feel bad just because everyone else can’t figure out the intricacies of game systems that don’t involve bashing shit over the head. If it’s in the game then it’s worth exploring and exploiting, and stuff like this is a hell of a lot easier to exploit than smashing low level digital bunny rabbits with your hammer,” I said.

“Behold the mighty warrior, slayer of flowers!” Kristoph said in a tone that I took to be just a tad mocking. He held his hammer over his head, looking for all the world like a sand person celebrating his most recent victory over young Mark Hamill.

“Don’t knock it,” I said, touching another flower and adding a few more petals to my inventory. There were little intricate veins in the thing that almost seemed to glow as I inspected it. “Crafting can be a path to fame and fortune in games like this.”

“Fame and fortune?” Kristoph asked with a snort. “When did you ever get fame and fortune from crafting?”

“Well, fortune at least,” I said. “There was one time when I took a level one character in NuWoW and used a few coppers I got from killing mobs in the starter area to completely corner the market on a couple of different ores without ever leaving the capital city. That was fun.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Kristoph said. “I spent the whole night trying to get you to run NeoDeadmines with me, and you were so busy with your auction house shenanigans that you wouldn’t come out to play.”

“Whatever,” I said, tapping another flower and adding it to my inventory. When I glanced at it in my inventory a tooltip came up.

Nhewb’s Blessing is a flower that grows in moderately untamed forests around settlements that border the wilderness. It can be used as a reagent in several potions.

That wasn’t much to go on, but it was a start. If I was a betting man I would’ve put money down on the moderately tame wildernesses Nhewb’s Blessing grew in being mostly the kind of areas where low level players got their start.

“So I got Gathering: Herbs just by touching one of these flowers,” I muttered. “And it’s showing me skills I haven’t gotten already. Looks like the game doesn’t give you a skill until you do it.”

“Duh,” Kristoph said. “How else would it work? You have to do something before you get the skill to start leveling it. That isn’t exactly revolutionary game design.”

“No, that’s important,” I said. “If we’re going to have fun in this game we’re going to have to figure out how the devs thought about putting it together.”

Kristoph leaned in and tapped me on the forehead. “If you’re going to have fun in this game then you’re going to have to figure out what the devs were thinking when they put it together. I’m perfectly happy smashing things with my warhammer. You’re only happy when you’re smashing the nice systems the game devs put in place so us normies can have a good time putting our brains on autopilot and doing fetch quests.”

“Whatever,” I said, moving along the path and tapping more flowers that went into my inventory. Meanwhile my Gathering:Herbs skill was moving up with each tap. It was addicting. “I wonder what kind of perks I might get for leveling Gathering?”

Kristoph shrugged. “You’re the one who unlocked the skill. Look at the skill tree and see if it shows you.”

“Huh,” I said. “Good idea!”

“You don’t have to sound surprised that I had a good idea,” Kristoph said with a sniff.

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m surprised,” I said, winking at him and earning a single finger salute for my trouble.

I thought of the skill tree and sure enough, just like every other status window in this game, thinking of it was enough to make it appear.

It was time to see what there was to see with this fun new skill I’d unlocked, and from there figure out how I could use that to pull off my ultimate exploit in the most complex video game ever created!

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